Features | Security | Central Asia

What Next in Afghanistan?

The Diplomat speaks with Matthew Hoh, director of the Afghanistan Study Group, about the group’s report on the future of US forces in the country.

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.

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?

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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.

The report emphasizes the idea of reconciliation and says preconditions for negotiations, such as recognizing the existing Afghan Constitution, shouldn’t be required. Should there be any preconditions for negotiations?

I’d stick with the renunciation of al-Qaeda and international terror groups.  However, I wouldn’t call for participants to recognize the Afghan Constitution, as I believe it needs to be reformed in order to make the government more inclusive and to devolve power.  I also believe that in its current form, our pre-conditions for negotiations essentially ask for the other side to surrender. All participants in the conflict are tired, I saw this when I was there, and I think there’s a willingness to negotiate, but I don't believe that they will surrender.

The report also talks about decentralizing power in Afghanistan. Does this mean in your view that a unified Afghan state simply isn’t viable?

No Afghan I met ever spoke about partition or dividing the country, for example such as creating a ‘Pashtunistan,’ and most Afghans identify themselves as Afghans first. Ultimately, it must be an Afghan solution and effort.  However, very real and very serious schisms exist within the country along regional and ethnic lines.  Devolving power to district and provincial levels to include possibly creating regional governments would create a system of governance more akin to traditional Afghan forms of governance—and this includes the very real and logical possibility of the establishment of governance institutions not common in the West, such as shuras. It needs to be an Afghan solution that will create buffers or barriers within the country that allow for less intrusion into parts of the country by other parts

What kind of role do you see for a central security force in Afghanistan? Should the US be responsible for training one?

The army should eventually be smaller, if for no other reason than its cost and the ability of Afghanistan to sustain such a force. And the police force needs to be local or provincial in nature and not so stove-piped.

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But the most important and immediate aspect for the security forces is that they need to be ethnically and regionally balanced.  They currently aren’t, and are a key reason why the rural Pashtuns support the Taliban—much like the Sunnis in Iraq who turned to the Sunni insurgency when large numbers of the Shia dominated Iraqi National Guard and then Iraqi Army showed up in Sunni parts of Iraq in 2003-6.

The rural Pashtuns see the Afghan Army as outsiders and many of them see the current Afghan Army as the extension of the Northern Alliance against which the rural Pashtuns fought under the banner of the Taliban in the 90s and up until Sep 2001. The security forces need to be much more representative of the Afghan population and much more localized. But this isn’t the same as arming local groups and militias and should include elements of groups who are now allied under the Taliban banner, akin to what we did with the Sons of Iraq.

I think training could be shifted to regional partners or to the United Nations for some parts of the country where a US presence may continue to be seen as a catalyst.  Also, for a period of time, peacekeepers will be needed in Afghanistan, along ethnic fault lines and areas.

One of the recommendations in the report is providing subsidies and loans to local agricultural producers, construction and companies and artisans as part of reconstruction efforts. Would you envisage bypassing central government with these kinds of initiatives?

I think it’s important to work through the government in order to strengthen and legitimize it, however, I think this should be done at provincial levels.  This also provides an argument for a regional system of government to provide for economies of scale in assisting multiple provinces without having it be administered nationwide from Kabul. Ultimately, efforts like this should be facilitated by NGOs and international organizations as US and European government institutions—USAID and DFID for example—have proven to be ineffective.

Aside from reducing the footprint in Afghanistan the report says the US should move more broadly to improve its overall image in the Islamic world. What would you like to see done?

We need to be much more consistent in our actions, thinking longer term rather than shorter term and understanding events in other nations for their root causes and not for the issues that affect us or that we impose.  For example, understanding the conflict in Yemen as having decades-long causes and not linking it explicitly to al-Qaeda, as I fear we are currently doing.  The same with Somalia. With al-Shabaab, we automatically assume extreme international Jihadism as motivation for their supporters, when it’s very likely that the current popular support al-Shabaab enjoys among some elements of the population is caused by the actions of an invading Ethiopian army or Uganda peacekeepers.  

By conflating al-Qaeda with opposition groups to Muslim governments, we’re letting al-Qaeda hijack issues and narratives that aren’t theirs.  Additionally, we must be much less hypocritical.  We can't criticize last year's Iranian elections but then condone and support the stolen Afghan elections by sending more troops.  Likewise, we can't say we are in Afghanistan because of al-Qaeda when there are only 50 to 100 al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, while we leave Iraq where last month the State Department reported 1000 to 2000 al-Qaeda members. This discredits our efforts and our message.


Matthew Hoh is a former Afghanistan-based official with the US State Department and US Marine Corps and director of the Afghanistan Study Group.