The Center for a New American Security—otherwise known as the practice squad for the emerging Obama Pentagon—put out an interesting policy paper yesterday called “Tell Me Why We’re There? Enduring Interests in Afghanistan (and Pakistan).”
The paper summarizes the endgame for U.S. interests in Afghanistan as consisting of “two no’s”: “no sanctuary for terrorists with global reach in Afghanistan, and there must be no broader regional meltdown.”
Fair enough, but a lot falls under those two no’s, most importantly getting Afghan president Karzai—who is likely going to cruise to victory later this year in the national election—to be able to be more than just the “mayor of Kabul.”
This end state should be something more than merely fighting terrorists, but also something more realistic than a prosperous and modern representative democracy: a sustainable system of governance that can provide adequate security for the Afghan people. In order to achieve this, the coalition and its Afghan partners must seek to build a state that reconciles a degree of centralized governance with the traditional tribal and religious power structures that hold sway outside Kabul. An internal balance between centralized and traditional power centers—not central government control everywhere—is the key to Afghan stability.
This long-term program which the paper estimates would take five to ten years, echoes, but doesn’t exactly mirror, comments that Secretary of Defense Gates made this morning at a press conference, where he said that the U.S. military should focus on achieving short-term goals, calling for plans that go from three to five years. Part of the problem, gates said, is that the goals the United States has for Afghanistan “are too broad and too far into the future.”
In Afghanistan, Gates continued, the United States should set “more concrete goals” that include asserting government control in the country's Taliban-infested southern and eastern regions.
While Gates’ comments aren’t necessarily in tension with those of the CNAS paper—allowing tribes a good degree of autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean that the government is giving up control—there is a subtle, but important, difference between the two outlooks. And the distance between an insistence on a stronger central government, and a recognition of the intractable realities of a clan-based society, is the distance the United States is going to have to travel to establish a workable strategy for Afghanistan, and the region in general.
One thing that wasn’t explicitly mentioned by either CNAS or Gates was the problem of the rampant corruption that plagues the Afghan government. Earlier this month, Congressman Tom Perriello (D-Va.) spoke to the issue at a United States Institute for Peace event in Washington, calling for an “accountability offensive” that would entail a major effort to root out local politicians and Afghan leaders who have been tainted by corruption, and who are rapidly losing the confidence of the local population because of it.
The United States and its allies currently face a “legitimacy gap,” Perriello said, less because of our own presence than because of “our association with local governing structures” that have been tainted by corruption. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but especially so because when waging a counterinsurgency campaign, “one of our greatest weapons is our legitimacy.” When it comes to plans to add more combat troops to Afghanistan this year, the congressman said that “if we don’t change the political dynamics on the ground, an increased presence may cause more harm than good. If we make that switch together I think we will see things turn around.”