The Cost of Ignoring Afghanistan's Politics

The U.S. government continues to opt for brute force

Foust Aug 29p.jpg


Kathy Gannon drops an unsurprising bombshell:

Infuriated that Washington met secretly at least three times with a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan government intentionally leaked details of the clandestine meetings, scuttling the talks and sending the Taliban intermediary into hiding...

In a series of interviews with diplomats, current and former Taliban, Afghan government officials and a close childhood friend of the intermediary, Tayyab Aga, the AP learned Aga is hiding in Europe, and is afraid to return to Pakistan because of fears of reprisals. The United States has had no direct contact with him for months.

This should surprise no one who follows Afghanistan closely. And while it is inevitable this will be played as yet more evidence that Hamid Karzai is out to ruin our day, what it really means is the U.S. government still, to this day, refuses to think of Afghanistan as a political place, where politics actually matter and must be worked through instead of dictated to. I've written of this near ad nauseum for years and years, both within the Department of Defense and here, in public.

No one cares, sadly. The U.S. doesn't really like to work with other governments, it prefers to work on top of, or around them. Hence, it continues to do things like bombing Pakistan regardless of the destabilizing consequences to Pakistan's own politics. These things should not surprise us, not in 2011.

Besides which, the entire negotiations track the U.S. took never made any sense. The American negotiating strategy with the Taliban seems to revolve around somehow providing sufficient incentives for the Taliban to give up their opposition to foreign forces in the country, their opposition to the Karzai government, and their opposition to the supposed anti-Islamic bent of both. In other words, it is focused on figuring out how best to bribe the Taliban to abandon their ideals and their reason for being.

A real negotiated framework for defusing an insurgency would involve creating the structures and institutions of a government so that an insurgency is unnecessary--so that the Taliban, in this case, can pursue their goals of removing foreigners and making the central government more Islamic and less corrupt without resorting to violence to do so. Demanding they accept the current constitution as is (even though the Afghan government itself doesn't seem to think it terribly functional), and that they give up violence as a means of achieving change (even while the new U.S. ambassador seeks to deny them non-violent means of doing so) not only doesn't make sense. It is yet more evidence that the U.S. government not only doesn't get politics, but that it actively rejects political considerations.

The war in Afghanistan is fundamentally a political conflict. It is years past time that we began to treat it like one.

A version of this post appeared at

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from 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 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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