Involving the Taliban in Afghanistan Solution: William R. Polk, Part 3

William R. Polk's first installment in this series, about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, is here; the second, about Afghan realities constraining U.S. options, is here. This is the third and last for now, an analysis of the least-bad way for the U.S. to manage its extrication from Afghanistan. For completeness, his 1958 article on "Lessons of Iraq" is here. The points below follow "Point I. Basic Facts" from earlier today:

By William R. Polk

II. The Essential Objectives of the Afghan People and The World Community:

The fundamental objective shared by the Afghans and foreigners is a peaceful and secure country, able and willing to manage its own affairs and to act as an independent member of the world community;

This objective is brought into sharp focus by the insistence of the member nations of the NATO alliance that Afghanistan, under any government, prohibit the use of its territory or other facilities for acts of terrorism or subversion in member countries and their allies.  This, after all, was the justification for the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2003.  This is the second objective;

The third objective is particularly important for, but not necessarily understood by,  Americans.  It is not only to eliminate or cut down on the vast expenditures of money (much of it borrowed) and human resources (much of it wasted in battle or used in unproductive ways) but also to avoid a "blowback" by the warping or degradation of their institutions, comity and laws caused by fear, apparent necessity for drastic action and excessive concern with "security;"

The fourth objective of the member nations of the NATO alliance and particularly of the United States is to end or at least diminish the costs to them of the war. Member nations of the NATO alliance are already acting to accomplish for themselves this objective.   Afghans generally do not share it:  the Taliban movement, fractured though it may be, is determined regardless of  cost to induce the foreigners to leave and to reestablish something like the regime that was destroyed by the American invasion.  The Karzai government wavers between the NATO/ American and the Taliban objectives.  In principle, it seeks total independence but its power brokers (aided and abetted by influential outside participants) are making vast amounts of money off the occupation and are in no hurry to end it.   That is to say, there is a small but significant area of agreement on the objectives but not on timing, on the means to achieve them and on whom will control the action.

III. Objectives Desired By The Afghan People and The World Community:

Although, in current conditions they have not uniformly or vigorously articulated it, we may assume that a desired objective of all the Afghan people is a more adequate standard of living with both an improved diet and an enhanced level of health as well as a level of education that will enable to achieve and sustain a strong economy;

Both the majority of the Afghan people and concerned foreign powers desire a level of stability sufficient to prevent civil strife and invite further foreign intervention;

Member countries of the NATO alliance as well as China and Russia would like for Afghanistan to take a place suitable to its capacities in legal world trade.  Specifically, they would like to profit from Afghanistan's mineral resources, to make use of its routes of trade and to get its help in interdicting the drug trade;

Since some aspects of Afghan society, notably the position and role of women, appear to outsiders as ugly and "medieval," they would like to foster the "evolution" of the society along contemporary Western lines.  This objective is not widely shared in the country today although, briefly in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the policy of the then Afghan government and was approved by a wide swath of urban society.  Under conditions of peace and independence, especially if these are brought about through negotiations, it is likely gradually to re-emerge.
IV. Accomplishment of These Objectives:

    Accomplishment of these objectives will be, at best,  a complex task and can be accomplished only gradually.  Rarely throughout its long history and only briefly in the last century have the Afghans had the opportunity to set their own agenda or to mobilize themselves to accomplish their own aims.   Moreover,  even discounting for the handicaps under which they have lived,  they have not made satisfactory use of the opportunities they have had.  (That is, except in the paramilitary field where they have taken on and essentially defeated both the Soviet Union and the United States.)  Unless or until the Afghans gain the necessary scope of action to manage their own affairs and even to commit their own mistakes, they are unlikely to make significant progress in non-military endeavors.   This scope can come only after an end to foreign control of their affairs.  Therefore, the necessary but not sufficient step is true independence.

    Costly and disappointing experience should have taught Western governments, and particularly the United States government, that the successful "engineering" of another country's government by foreigners is rare and that the beneficial recasting of an exotic society is even more rare.  Foreign powers can contribute only marginally to local initiatives.  To succeed, action must be modest.

V. Means of action:

    The United States government must acknowledge, as does the Karzai government, that the Taliban claim to a major degree of participation in whatever government evolves cannot be successfully denied.  This will be politically difficult for Western governments, but the sooner they, and particularly the United States government, recognizes this fact, the stronger will be its means of action.  We must assume that the Taliban knows, as did the Vietminh in their war against the American occupation in Vietnam, that time in on their side.   While painful, the Taliban struggle is sustainable at acceptable cost and is fought in their neighborhood while the NATO and American campaign is enormously expensive, not popular with their own peoples and is remote from their concerns.  Thus, a wise American policy would seeks negotiations at the earliest feasible time.

    Negotiation is the most efficient, fastest and least costly way ahead.  The elements that will arise in negotiations are not many but are fundamental.  

    First is the revamping of the central government to include the Taliban.  Absent this, there will be no productive negotiation.   President Karzai himself has called for their inclusion. Before negotiations are undertaken, precisely what would be involved cannot be made clear.  Hints have suggested participation in a sort of government of national unity with each side staking a claim to spheres of influence or control.   The Taliban want more; Karzai wants to give less.  This, of course, is the essence of negotiation.  Neither Karzai nor the Taliban trust the other to abide by the deal they make.  So a careful step-by-step process will be required and probably some form of guarantee will have to be devised to overcome the lack of trust.

    Second is the structure of the state.  Probably some sort of federal configuration will be necessary, but, at all costs, the country should not be "balkanized."   This is because Afghanistan's several ethnic/religious/linguistic communities are so mingled that splitting the country into pieces, as some have suggested, would set off a panic flight that would create millions of new refugees;  moreover, the resulting mini-states would be too weak to sustain themselves and so would invite perennial intervention.

    Probably the negotiators will agree to continue the traditional, ethnicity-based arrangement of provinces.  Exact boundaries may prove difficult to determine but something like the Pushtun south, the Tajik northeast, the Turkic north and the Hazara central massif will constitute the major elements.  Afghans will probably agree to keep the current freedom of movement among the provinces; indeed, it probably could not be effectively curtailed.

    In this somewhat loosely unified state, the negotiators will probably easily agree that area around Kabul should be a federal district, as it historically has been, administered by the central government.   The foreign negotiators and donors of aid should endeavor to get agreement on making the federal district the leader in modernization.  For example, strengthening of the university with such associated professional schools as the medical training college, augmented by European and American universities and foundations, acting like the Rockefeller Foundation did in China, will attract potential leaders from the provinces and help to integrate the country.  Such a policy will be difficult to sell to the Taliban.

    Third, and more difficult to be agreed will be the allocation of military power.  Today, it is of two very different kinds:  the Karzai regime has, at least on paper, a standing army while the Taliban has, effectively, a guerrilla army.  If negotiations are delayed beyond the withdrawal of the foreign, mainly American, forces, it is likely that the standing army will simply implode.  Soldiers will just go home.  That is what happened in many revolutionary situations, most recently in neighboring Iran.  This is another reason, obviously, to undertake negotiations sooner rather than later.

    What negotiators should aim to achieve is the creation of a relatively small standing army.  It should be small because such limited human and monetary resources as the country has are desperately needed elsewhere and a large army, absent other vigorous public institutions, which do not yet exist, would likely lead to a military take-over and derailment of the development program.

    Fourth is the role of the government of national unity in other aspects of rule.  Control of foreign affairs would give the central government the means to negotiate with and encourage donors and investors.  Since external aid would pass through its hands, the central government could allocate aid projects among the provinces and so exercise a subtle but considerable influence over their policies.  Continuation and strengthening of a uniform currency, under control of a central bank, will also help to unify the country, but given the level of corruption and flight of money, this may be stoutly resisted by Karzai's supporters; the Taliban will be less concerned with this issue.

    Fifth is the crucial issue of the smaller-scale structure of the state: village assemblies are the backbone of Afghanistan.  Their role is absolutely crucial.  It should be easy to convince a government of national unity to support them.  One way to do this is to give them authority over local aid projects.  First on the list could be small, inexpensive, locally-built, farm-to-market roads (to connect with the ring road  (see map)  so that farmers can get their produce to market before it spoils.  Such a program was highly successful even half a century ago, when I first observed it,  but it was aborted by invasion, civil war and the break-down of rural order.   Such a program in the aftermath of a negotiated end of war would meet locally-perceived needs, give a much-needed example of success and engender a new sense of "ownership."   Thus, the village assemblies will be empowered, encouraged to support peace and make a serious attack on the current massive unemployment.



VI Dangers and Costs of Negotiation and Non-negotiation

         Since, obviously, negotiations that include the Taliban will be politically costly, the United States government and particularly the current administration is likely to delay or even to avoid action.  Given this contingency,  a second category of action must be considered.  What would it entail?

    The first step would be the setting of a clear, firm and reasonably proximate date for the evacuation of foreign forces.  Moves have been made in this direction, but they have been weakened by hedging on timing and numbers.   So they have not had the effect on the Karzai regime, the Taliban or on the general public that is needed.   It is important to understand exactly why clarity and determination are crucial.  In summary, it is because they are necessary to change the "political psychology" of the Afghans.  And only if such a change is brought about can progress can be made on either the essential or the desired objectives stated above.

    Consider the reaction of the Afghans.  The Taliban is committed to continue fighting until foreign forces evacuate the country.  It is unlikely that they will accept a partial or long-delayed evacuation. If not,  the war will continue.  The Karzai regime shows two responses to lack of a clear policy:  on the one hand, its "power brokers" continues at a truly astonishing scale and speed to profit from the occupation and, on the other hand, they are withdrawing their assets and families to safe havens abroad.   Meanwhile, the general population can make no significant contribution to peace but, in part, helps to continue the insurgency by passively allowing or actively helping the Taliban.
    The evidence of this is made clear in the way the way the Afghan community has viewed the war.  At the present time, the Taliban can not only move virtually at will and draw support from the people but can destroy even such foreign donations as clinics, schools, bridges, etc..  The reason, as stated above, is that the Afghans regard these results of foreign activities as part of the military tactic to dominate them. Americans and Europeans with a sense of history will recall that in the 1950s, the Vietnamese also acquiesced in guerrilla tactics, allowing free passage and providing support, but also destroyed the works of the French (and later the Americans).  The Vietcong murdered even doctors, nurses and teachers.  Other insurgent groups have followed the same policy.

    So, if we  believe it is to our shared interest to move Afghanistan toward a degree of security which would allow an American administration to withdraw without a politically unacceptable defeat, we must change the context in which our actions are judged: that is, we must disconnect military tactics - our self-defeating counterinsurgency action-- from developmental programs.

    If a firm date in the reasonably near term is believed, the Afghans can feel that their principal, shared objective has been achieved: the foreigners have agreed to leave.   At that point, the village assemblies - jirgas, shuras and ulas -- will begin to view the construction in their neighborhoods of a clinic, the opening of a school or the laying of a farm-to-market road as intrinsically valuable; they will want these things for themselves and their fellow villagers.  

    Will the Taliban and/or local militias under the command of warlords continue to do as it is now doing to thwart this process?  Probably.  But if they do, they will gradually but inexorably lose the support of the villagers on whom they rely.  (Thus, in Mao's often quoted phrase, the "water" will dry up around the "fish.") In this new context, they will be seen as operating against the public good in ways that can no longer be justified as opposition to foreign domination.  In short, their cause will have become redundant and their opposition to foreign-financed and conceived beneficial activities will come to be seen as unpatriotic and anti-social.

VII. Anticipated Results:

        Over time:  Afghanistan can evolve into a relatively peaceful society in which citizens will have a chance for a considerably improved standard of living and, in the context of Afghan cultural norms, will come to share an acceptable form of participatory democracy.  More Afghan émigrés, now constituting a drain on neighboring countries and needed at home to replace the over 1 million Afghans killed or died in the wars, will return as about 6 million already have. While results within Afghanistan itself will be modest, the benefits to outside powers will be immense:  the enormous drain on the financial resources of the US and other powers will end, the wounding and killing of their soldiers will cease; and the dislocations of their societies in reaction to their perception of threats of terrorism and subversion will lessen as Afghanistan can no longer be used as a launching pad for actions against them.  In short, the program laid out here is to the interest of all parties and should be undertaken with all deliberate speed.