The New Yorker
War and Politics
by Steve Coll October 26, 2009
Over the summer, the Afghan Taliban’s military committee distributed “A Book of Rules,” in Pashto, to its fighters. The book’s eleven chapters seem to draw from the population-centric principles of F.M. 3-24, the U.S. Army’s much publicized counter-insurgency field manual, released in 2006. Henceforth, the Taliban guide declares, suicide bombers must take “the utmost steps . . . to avoid civilian human loss.” Commanders should generally insure the “safety and security of the civilian’s life and property.” Also, lest anxious Afghan parents get the wrong idea, Taliban guerrillas should avoid hanging around with beardless young boys and should particularly refrain from “keeping them in camps.”
The manual might be risible if the Taliban’s coercive insurgency were not so effective. Afghanistan’s self-absorbed President, Hamid Karzai, might even consider leafing through it; if he could account for his citizenry’s appetite for justice and security half as adaptively as his enemies do, Barack Obama would not be struggling so hard to locate the “good war” he pledged to win during his campaign for the White House.
Afghanistan’s deterioration cannot be blamed on one man, and certainly not on Karzai. After the Taliban’s fall, he was a symbol of national unity in a broken land—for several years, he was perhaps the only Afghan leader able to attract the simultaneous confidence of northern Tajik militias, southern Pashtun tribes, and international aid donors. The landslide he won in the 2004 election truly reflected his standing.
Gradually, however, Karzai seemed to succumb to palace fever and corruption. An unfortunate blend of ego and passivity hobbled him; he could neither manage the American presence in his country nor turn its failures to his advantage by remaking himself as a convincing nationalist. For years, the Bush Administration accepted Karzai’s limitations, and did nothing to create conditions from which a plausible alternative might emerge. In 2008, as another election approached, President Bush’s advisers at last sensed trouble; some of them considered trying to dump Karzai. In the end, however, Bush chose a policy of neutrality, which the incoming Obama Administration endorsed.
There is no sugarcoating how Karzai played his hand: he or his backers tried to rig the election on August 20th, a day on which several million of his countrymen defied Taliban threats of violence to attend the polls. Recently, after weeks of equivocating, the head of the United Nations mission in Kabul, Kai Eide, of Norway, admitted that the vote had been marred by “widespread fraud.” (The U.N. had earlier fired Eide’s American deputy, Peter Galbraith, for chasing this conclusion too vigorously.) U.N. voter-turnout estimates show that most of the fraud occurred in Karzai’s strongholds and lifted his tally far more than any other candidate’s. In southern Helmand Province, for example, the U.N. estimates suggest that Karzai’s campaign may have manufactured more than seventy thousand fake votes; in Kandahar, a hundred and twenty thousand; in Paktika, a hundred and sixty thousand. From June through August, nearly two hundred coalition soldiers died in military operations designed in part to create security for the election.
Karzai’s apparent betrayal has the capacity to shock, but it would be a mistake to overemphasize his failings, just as it was an error to overemphasize his early successes. American interests in Afghanistan—namely, the disablement of Al Qaeda along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the pursuit of a region free from the threat of Taliban revolution—should not be wholly confused with the quest for an honest President in Kabul, where rulers have not often been trustworthy.
A second round of voting now looks probable; it could help calm the country, or it could make things worse. In any event, the election is not yet an utter catastrophe. Two years ago, in Kenya, Mwai Kibaki allegedly stole his reëlection to the Presidency, and the country erupted in mass riots and militia killings. In June, Iran’s fraud-riddled vote ignited a protest movement with revolutionary ambitions. In Afghanistan, despite possibly decisive fraud, the opposition has barely thrown a rock. Abdullah Abdullah, the aggrieved second-place finisher, just holds press conferences in his garden.
It goes without saying that Afghans have had enough of violence. Abdullah’s restraint signals a broader, resilient desire among many political and tribal leaders to avoid having their country descend into chaos again. This is the opening that American policy has repeatedly failed to grasp since the Taliban’s fall in late 2001: an opportunity to reject the false expediency of warlords and indispensable men, in favor of deepening participatory, Afghan-led political reform and national reconciliation.
In tandem with a decision about troop levels, the Obama Administration requires an ambitious political strategy for Afghanistan, one that will seize upon the willingness of opposition leaders to negotiate even with a tainted President Karzai about an array of national questions. These include how electoral fraud might be prevented in the future; whether provincial governors should be elected rather than appointed at the President’s whim; how ethnic balance can be assured as the country’s Army and police force grow; whether political parties should be encouraged; whether the 2004 constitution should be revised to strengthen parliament; how local government can be improved; how corrupt or drug-dealing government officials should be brought to account; and how Taliban foot soldiers and leaders might be encouraged to forswear violent revolution for constitutional politics.
It is not the specifics of these talks that matter most; it is the prospective project of continuous Afghan-led negotiations, formal and informal, amply resourced with money, international attention, and supportive expertise. Some of these projects, such as the establishment of local rehabilitation centers for defecting low-level Taliban fighters, demand urgent investments, within months.
Such political work will be no more certain to succeed than anything else in Afghanistan. Karzai will resist encroachments upon his authority; efforts to satisfy northern groups such as those aligned with Abdullah will conflict with efforts to pacify the Taliban, who are rooted in the south and the east. It is essential work, nonetheless—counter-insurgency campaigns rarely prevail unless military deployments are intimately connected with political negotiations.
Since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, in 1979, attempts by foreign powers to shape events there have repeatedly been thwarted by what intelligence analysts call “mirror imaging,” which is the tendency of decision-makers in one country to judge counterparts in another through the prism of their own language and politics. The Politburo, for example, engaged in energetic debates about the extent to which Afghanistan might conform to the stages of revolutionary development contemplated in Marxist-Leninist theory.
As the Obama war cabinet now debates its choices, American discourse barely refers to Afghan leaders by name or to the particular equations of the country’s diverse provinces. Instead, historical analogies and abstract concepts from political-theory texts abound—arguments about “legitimacy” and “governance,” as if the Taliban were motivated primarily by the “Rights of Man.” Obama and his advisers might profitably consult the Democratic Party’s own book of rules, specifically an entry composed by a peaceable boss from Massachusetts: All politics is local. In the case of Afghanistan, there is a corollary: All local progress, or failure, will be political.