A Blog About Global Politics and Change

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.

Now, none of this means Afghanistan is automatically headed for war. If we are extraordinarily lucky, the reemergence of the Northern Alliance (of a sense) will lead to a Loya Jirga that includes the Taliban, not to another civil war. In fact, this is what the International Community should be pushing for, as it poses the best chance of resolving the political conflicts at the heart of the war. Unfortunately, what we are getting instead is a disjointed and halting process driven by the international community, a separate track of talks spearheaded by Hamid Karzai, and a constellation of different political actors within Afghanistan who seem to oppose both processes.

In other words, while there still exists the possibility of a reordering Afghanistan's politics, most likely in the form of another emergency Loya Jirga that brings together the Northern Alliance, the Karzai dependents, and the Taliban, there's no sense from the international community, much less the Northern Alliance or Karzai, that such a thing is even in the cards, perhaps because they all think they have the international community on their side.

Either way, the continued fracturing of Afghanistan's politics is a very worrying development. But so little attention is being paid to it. That's what I intend to correct in this blog. It brings with it a host of other issues, like economic development (intimately tied to questions of politics, as the Tea Party in this country can attest), war policy, and diplomacy. We'll see how it shapes up, yeah?

Image: Ahmad Masood/Reuters