The central problem of the American occupation of Afghanistan is a deep-rooted misunderstanding of the political reality on the ground. The US sees its mission as quashing a terrorist organization in partnership with the Afghan and Pakistani states in order to stabilize Afghanistan and produce a democratic ally. This does not reflect the reality of the Afghan situation. American and NATO forces face a people’s war, an elusive enemy, and increasingly recalcitrant Afghan and Pakistani governments.
The coalition approach has mostly been to treat this as a primarily military conflict and a winnable war of attrition.
But the insurgency is a dispersed network, not a single monolithic Taliban that can be found and defeated.
Taliban groups are spread throughout Western Afghanistan and integrate into local populations, gaining local support through payment or coercion. For American units to clear any village of Taliban, they must show the village elders that villages will benefit more from cooperation with them than with the Taliban. There has been some change towards this type of counterinsurgency since Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency plan of 2006.
But as one Marine put it, the operating principle remains “mowing the grass.”
In order to create any stability in Afghanistan, the American military must recognize and respond to Afghanistan’s traditional systems of authority. On the tribal level, this means reempowering village elders by giving them control over distribution of jobs and aid, and a voice in partnership with the local American unit. In Marja, neighborhood elders organize neighborhood patrols, paid for by the Marines, and advise the Marines on where to build schools. Townspeople hope the Marines will eventually pay for a new mosque.
This kind of relationship, empowering communities, is what brings local stability.
In Afghanistan, these structures of authority are more powerful than imported democracy. Democracy disempowers the shura (council of elders) by creating competition among elders. It places the emphasis on broader regional and national levels of representation, far from the extremely localized focus of Afghan tribes.
This is not to say that central government has no place in today’s Afghanistan. The only type of central government that has ever worked, however, was run by a monarch or military leader, someone who had proven his strength and ability to rule.
An electoral path to power is not a source of legitimacy in Afghanistan. It does not demonstrate strength to lead and only inflames Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions. President Karzai has sought to soothe ethnic tensions but has low and decreasing control over the population. Karzai is delegitimized by his close ties to Americans, by his lack of traditional legitimacy, and by his government’s corruption.
In the eyes of Afghans, these accusations tar democracy itself. Democracy has proven its inability to generate peace and economic growth.
The best option of American counterinsurgency forces is to focus on strengthening local authority structures to generate stability and political peace. Though not democratically accountable, these structures bring their own accountability; village elders speak for their tribes and are held to their promises of money, jobs, and protection.
Empowering villages reasserts local sovereignty and cultural sovereignty: one less complaint for the Taliban to press against the American infidels. It will continue to give American units influence over how their money is spent – schools for both boys and girls, for example – rather than total control with no local support.
The Taliban and Americans vie for the position of giving aid and protection in exchange for local support. Faith in the commitment of American patrons gives Afghan villages a reason to deny support to the Taliban, as they know that American troops will protect them and will continue to provide aid. This faith cannot come from simply the assurances of American units if they continue to operate independent of the input of their would-be local partners. It can only come from handing control over to tribal elders.
For years the Taliban have had the support of no more than 25% of the population in any given area, and generally 10% or less outside their home territory in the West.
As a network of violent groups that generate far more civilian casualties than coalition troops, they are hardly ideal partners for Afghan villagers. If Americans prove their respect for local sovereignty and commitment to aid and protection, they can be accepted as better partners in more communities.
Any peace-keeping power structure is better than abandoning Afghanistan to civil war.
Americans must not let their obsession with democracy hold Afghanistan hostage.