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If the United States is to be a responsible actor in the world, it must have a responsible understanding of the countries where it meddles the most

It might seem intuitive that the practice of international relations is driven by politics. But oddly, the politics of the countries where American fights its wars often seem relegated to the back burner -- something to be dealt with later, after the military does its thing and the American politicians do their things.

That's backwards. If the United States is to be a responsible actor in the world, it must have a responsible understanding of the countries where it meddles the most: to include places like Iraq and Libya and Afghanistan, but also Yemen and Pakistan and wherever else people find issues of importance. A recent example of this is in Afghanistan, where the U.S. seems blind to the emergence of a complex political opposition to President Hamid Karzai.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The new opposition group is led by former key figures in the Northern Alliance, which banded together mostly Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias to fight the Taliban regime during civil war in the 1990s.

Along with Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, the group is led by Gen. Rashid Dostum of the Uzbek community and Ahmad Zia Massoud, a prominent Tajik whose brother, Ahmad Shah Massoud, led the Tajiks against the Taliban before his assassination by al Qaeda two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In essence, this is the reemergence of the old Northern Alliance, a conglomeration of different tanzims, or religious-political-military parties that fought the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s then turned their guns on each other in the 1990s, then turned their guns on the Taliban after that. While many of those names, like Dostum and Massoud, are familiar to U.S. policymakers, they are hated and feared outside their immediate followers: all are renown gangsters, thugs, and murders (though Mohaqiq far less so than the other two).

This matters because the politics of Afghanistan have as much to say about its potential for peace as any agreement or policy the U.S. enacts. A bloc of politicians and strongmen organized around the Panjshir Valley, a Tajik holdout against the Soviets and the Taliban during the wars in the 1980s and 1990s, has routinely protested both Hamid Karzai's and the U.S.'s attempts to negotiate an end to the war.

But today there is a growing number of opposition political blocs within Afghanistan, and these pose a tremendous danger to any U.S. plans for an amicable withdrawal.

  • The unnamed "Opposition," as represented by Dostum, Mohaqiq, and Massoud. They are angry that Karzai's special court invalidated some of the gains won by ethnic minorities in the Parliamentary election. Each leader also has personal grudges against Karzai for Karzai's attempt to check their power over the last ten years... and each has their own troubling history of bloodshed and war crimes to consider before complaining about Karzai's mis-rule.
  • The Besij-i Milli, a different opposition bloc primarily organized around Panjshiri Tajiks, led by Abdullah Abdullah and supported by Amrullah Saleh. Their biggest sticking point is preventing a grand bargain with the Taliban as advocated by Hamid Karzai and the US, unless the Taliban in effect surrender by dropping their grievances against the government and giving up their weapons.
  • All the old tanzims, not reconstituted as political parties of a sort, which sometimes work together and sometimes at odds depending on the issue.
  • President Karzai and the government of Afghanistan in Kabul.
  • The Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, which may or may not be interested in a compromise-based political settlement.
  • The Haqqani Network, which claims fealty to Mullah Omar but operates mostly autonomously and maintains ties to the ISI and al Qaeda, and functions more like a violent crime syndicate than an insurgency.
  • Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin, which is both marginal and whose leader is desperate for power.
  • Other insurgent groups active in a smaller scale in limited geographic areas.

There are, obviously, many other political actors in Afghanistan. And by the day, there seems to be more and more, though this could just be an artifact of Afghan politics (e.g. that coalitions form and break up regularly). But the process of registering political parties is difficult and time-consuming -- beside the general apathy Afghans seem to have toward the concept of political parties, the voting system makes it difficult to identify candidates by party: only five qualified to be named on the 2010 ballot. There is also, I believe, no register of named votes in Parliament (e.g. MPs are not identified by their votes) so party platforms aren't enforceable. The very political system itself, in other words, disincentivizes many forms of political organization we'd consider normal in a normal country.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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