The Afghan War has often been dubbed by supporters as the ‘good war’ by those contrasting it with military action in Iraq. At what point would you say it became clear that this was no longer the case, or should that have been clear from the start?
Our involvement in Afghanistan in its current form began nine years ago this month, so nearly a decade's worth of involvement. Importantly, it must be remembered, recognized and understood that we entered into a conflict—a civil war—that had been continuous in one form or another since the mid to late seventies. So while we view the conflict as being primarily about us, because of al-Qaeda's attacks on the US in 2001, the Afghans understand the conflict to be about themselves, with a good deal of regional involvement—Pakistan, India and Iran—and a conflict that predates 2001 and al-Qaeda.
I do believe we went there in 2001 for justifiable reasons and our initial presence did stabilize the country for a short period of time. However, our failure to understand the nature of the conflict, a civil war, and our failure to address the underlying political issues of that conflict, plus the establishment of a strong central government the like of which had never been successful in a country where governance traditionally resides at the lowest levels possible resulted in the conflict resurfacing and then worsening over these past five or six years.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
So in short, I think the initial reason we went there—al-Qaeda—was a success. However, we also entered into a conflict which we didn't fully understand and are now still there.
The report you co-authored and which is being released at the New America Foundation today, A New Way Forward for Afghanistan, is pretty scathing about the Hamid Karzai regime, stating that: ‘President Karzai has had nearly six years to build a legitimate and minimally effective government, and he has manifestly failed to do so. His re-election last year was marred by widespread fraud. Karzai has been unable or unwilling to crack down on corruption or rein in the warlords on whom his government still depends.’ Could we have been in a very different situation had the Afghan leadership been more effective?
I think so. Some of the problem is the form of government we created. In a country that hasn’t had a traditionally strong central government—the monarchy did keep the country stable for the majority of the 20th century, but reigned by not reigning in a manner of speaking—and in a country that has multiple fractures and schisms along ethnic, regional, tribal, etc lines, we created a very strong executive and a very weak legislature.
The result of this is that power is centralized with Karzai and so, if you aren’t in his clique then you’re outside of it. Additionally, as I said, the situation in Afghanistan is a civil war, and this form of government has continued that conflict as one element of the civil war. The rural Pashtuns, from which the Taliban draw their support, are effectively excluded from the government, its resources and security forces.
If we’d created a more inclusive government—let alone this current one, which is the very definition of a kleptocracy—and had created a government much more localized and not centralized, I think many of the issues that form the bulk of the political grievances of those groups that support the Taliban may have been reconciled. Remember also the Taliban isn’t a monolithic organization, but composed of multiple local groups with local grievances.