Osama bin Laden’s death, although important, will not stabilize Afghanistan. Nor will it eliminate factors supporting the existence of sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The protection that bin Laden and the Taliban leadership have enjoyed in Pakistan should surprise no one. It is widely understood that the Pakistani Army has long supported extremist groups as justification for maintaining an asymmetric warfare capability against the perceived threat posed by India. Despite the existence of a secular strand and an elected government in Pakistan, the Army has convinced the Pakistani people that without its overwhelming dominance of all levers of national power, the country will be overrun by external forces any day.
However, with bin Laden dead, declaring a quick victory on global terrorism and pushing for a rushed exit from Afghanistan are recipes for failure. In addition, any haste in either cutting aid or doubling-down on unilateral covert operations will create untenable tensions inside Pakistan, endangering the state and further empowering the military at the expense of democratic institutions.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has never been a significant military force. But the Taliban have mobilized tens of thousands of fighters and are growing increasingly strong. Barely three weeks since bin Laden’s demise, the Taliban have launched a series of audacious attacks, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing over 120 people and raiding the naval base in Karachi. This latest show of strength and organization is a testimony to the fact that the Taliban are here to stay.
This presents policymakers with an urgent dilemma. Calls for sudden troop withdrawals will lead to a swift but certain collapse of the Afghan government, a takeover by the Taliban within weeks and a return of new terrorist sanctuaries. As an accelerated withdrawal is now high on the agenda, what can be done to prevent chaos in Afghanistan and its knock on effects in Pakistan? Is there an effective alternative to a straightforward military strategy, and could securing stability in Afghanistan actually inspire progress in neighboring Pakistan?
Reconciliation with the Taliban won’t be sufficient to both reduce instability in Afghanistan and also eliminate the nefarious networks of extremist groups in Pakistan. Instead, the only sure path may be to redirect our efforts in helping strengthen and legitimize the Afghan state so that it can stand on its own. Injustice and the exercise of illegitimate power are now key reasons for a disaffected and disenchanted population. This is precisely where the Taliban find the space within which they thrive and where they seek and obtain support. Closing this gap by restoring a sense of justice and legitimacy will not only make the Taliban an irrelevant entity in Afghanistan, but will also serve as a model for Pakistan where their use as a geopolitical instrument of asymmetric warfare would no longer be viable or justifiable.
In its current state, the Afghan state is exceedingly weak, rampant with corruption and lacks legitimacy. How did we ever get to this? The Afghan authorities bear much of the responsibility, but international donors must bear an even larger burden of the blame. Beginning in 2001, an massively uncoordinated model of international intervention was followed by massive inflows of foreign aid relative to domestic sources of capital, creating a textbook case of a rentier state. Instead of helping to craft institutions capable of establishing the legitimacy of the state via internal revenues and locally accepted governance, donors made the state entirely dependent on outside forces. This engendered a national leadership with no incentives to undertake any significant effort in being accountable to its citizenry. And in the rush to seek quick military solutions, and sub-contracting the war, donors empowered warlords and their cliques, further weakening the state and exacerbating the perception of injustice. The corollary was that Afghanistan became an extreme case of a state-building enterprise imposed from the outside, resulting in the inevitable failure to deliver stability and with ominous regional consequences.