Yesterday, Afghans defied Taliban threats and endured a number of attacks across the country as they lined up to vote in Afghanistan’s third major election since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. Apparently, several hundred polling stations had to close due to security concerns, but there were no spectacular attacks that succeeded in derailing the election. Overall, this was a successful election for an underdeveloped and war-torn country.
It was also an expensive and misguided exercise in futility.
The notion that a stable and centralized democratic state can survive in Afghanistan is one of the more egregious examples of the hubris underneath Western political idealism. And yet, it has been one of the central pillars of the strategy that has guided operations in Afghanistan for the past 8 years, burdening the U.S. and its allies with an impossible goal. As the West continues to learn quite painfully, democracy is a final product; not a precursor. Economic development, political stability, military security, and a political culture that values individual liberty must exist before democracy can take root; not the other way around. An op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor summarized the problem well:
Democracy is not a coat of paint. A feudal society in which women are still treated as property and literacy hovers below 10 percent in rural areas does not magically shortcut 400 years of political development and morph into a democracy in a decade. The current government of Afghanistan’s claim to legitimacy is based entirely on a legal source – winning an election. Yet this has no historical basis for legitimizing Afghan rule. The winner of today’s election will largely be seen as illegitimate because he is elected.
The much-hyped “new” counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan (which is in fact a classic counterinsurgency strategy) seeks to rob the Taliban of legitimacy by protecting the population from their intimidation. According to this plan, the Taliban would eventually lose the support and acquiescence of the population, leaving them to wither on the vine. That is all well and good, but it presumes that the Afghan government will be strong enough to develop a higher quality of life for its people. And therein lies the flaw of the strategy; the U.S. and its allies – along with the Afghan National Army, the only strong institution in the country – is creating the security shield for political and economic development that will not be occurring, because a centralized Afghan government is an oxymoron. Development that does occur will be done by the U.S. and Co., and even this effort will be hobbled by the decrease in political control caused by the pretense of an effective government in Kabul; the U.S. has shackled itself to a rock.
This is not to sound defeatist. If the U.S. is willing to expend sufficient blood and treasure on its present strategy, then victory is eventually assured, though it will be a hard slog. Building a state is not cheap, and that is what the current strategy requires.
However, a much simpler and inexpensive strategy has always been available. It is past time that we embrace it. Why exert ourselves for decades as we defy the currents of a tribal society when going with the current is so much easier?
There is only one vital U.S. interest in Afghanistan: prevent terrorist elements from basing there. A feudal society is perfectly compatible with this objective. Instead of hopelessly campaigning to expand Kabul’s writ across the country, allow the local warlords and tribal leaders to exercise the power accorded them by the tradition and religion that has governed Afghan society for millennia. The U.S. merely needs to set down a simple list of conditions for these political entrepreneurs: (1) Do not allow Taliban or Al Qaeda to base in the regions they control; (2) acknowledge a symbol of Afghan national unity, perhaps the president and the ANA; (3) rule well. Let it be known that the U.S. will support those that meet these conditions, and it will remove those that don’t. The Afghan National Army could serve as the one national institution that binds the many local power centers together and dampens the centrifugal forces that decentralization would create.
This strategy might appear cynical for the U.S., which has expended so much prestige on a crusade to bring democracy to the Middle East. But it has the benefit of harnessing Afghan society as an ally in the struggle. Transforming Afghan society is as impossible as it is unnecessary.
In the 19th century, the British Empire sought a stable and allied Afghan state as a political buffer to keep Russian influence out of India. When Dost Muhammad – the Afghan regent – began tilting toward the Russians, the British targeted him for removal in order to demonstrate British power and deter the Russians and any other wayward states. So they replaced him with a more compliant ruler, Shah Shuja. The British did not allow Shuja to rule in the necessary fashion, however. They were confident that their passive garrisons would be effective symbols of power and Shuja’s rivals would be duly intimidated into submission. The British were wrong, and their garrisons were annihilated in a calamity that became known as the First Afghan War. It was a traumatic lesson for the Empire, but they absorbed it well: Afghans respected the action of power, not the symbol of it. After the “Army of Retribution” marched through Afghanistan and exacted revenge for the humiliation, Afghanistan came firmly back into the British orbit. The preferred client ruler may not have survived, but the key objective of keeping Russian influence at bay was accomplished. As Edward Ingram writes in Great Powers and Little Wars:
Short, sharp, punitive raids were the most effective way to stabilize Afghanistan, as the Army of Retribution showed. There was no need of friendship; stable disorder was enough. Afghan rulers would learn that the British might not be able to set anyone up but certainly could knock anyone down. As Palmerston put it, they could beat up a few natives once in a while to remind them that they had not lost the knack.
The U.S. need not suffer a similar calamity before it learns the same thing: a centralized democratic Afghanistan is a fantasy. A stable feudal system is adequate, both for the U.S. and the Afghan people.