While the Trump administration continues to debate troop levels in Afghanistan, a rather odd and concerning incident took place last week: a plane carrying Abdul Rashid Dostum, the vice president, was denied permission to land in Mazar-i Sharif. The vice president had recently formed a new political coalition with Governor Ata Mohammad Noor and others who had previously been loyal to the internationally-backed National Unity Government (NUG), headed by President Ashraf Ghani. It appeared that the national government is attempting to undermine this new partnership.
This threatens to throw into disarray the shaky coalition that the U.S. government is hoping will negotiate with the Taliban to bring stability in Afghanistan. It also makes it less clear what the role of American troops would be in supporting a government that has been increasingly perceived as illegitimate by the Afghan public. The decline in legitimacy of Afghan leaders should be deeply concerning to the United States.
Over the past eight years, Anna Larson, a political scientist at SOAS, and I have been conducting regular interviews in a series of districts across Afghanistan in partnership with the United States Institute of Peace. Focusing on how ordinary Afghans view the government, the results of our most recent round of interviews show some troubling trends.
While many Afghans in 2014 were optimistic about the potential for reform, economic growth, and increased stability, over the past three years, most of this optimism has vanished. In particular, almost all interviewees voiced frustration about the ways in which political leaders have become less responsive to their needs. As international funds have decreased, there is an increased sense that leaders know they have a limited amount of time to secure resources, whether they are development funds or military contract that have enriched many former warlords.
In one rather telling case we looked at in Nangarhar, Ghani ordered the arrest of a local commander who had been previously loyal to the government for stealing timber from government land. The commander was only briefly held before being released by the chief of police. Nangarhar is a particular critical province that has wealth from trade with Pakistan, but it also has one of the strongest Islamic State presences in Afghanistan. Those interviewed in the province were no longer convinced that the national government had any real interest in rooting out corruption or stopping the Taliban.
This lack of faith fits with wider survey findings by the Asia Foundation in its annual poll. Worryingly, even among university students in Kabul that were interviewed, typically considered one of the most liberal and cosmopolitan groups in Afghanistan, there was little faith in the government to resolve the ongoing crisis. Instead, students pointed out, Dostum, Noor, and others benefit from the low levels of violence that continue to ensure the flows of aid money and military support to the country.
This complicates the potential increase of U.S. troops. If only enough troops are added to maintain the current shaky stalemate, many leaders will see no real reason to negotiate with the Taliban or anyone else. Leaders would likely just continue stealing resources, interviewees suggested. Instead, the troops need to come with significant U.S. diplomatic pressure on Afghanistan’s leaders to chart a political process forward. This would include pressure for new, transparent elections and American assistance in brokering an agreement of cooperation with Pakistan. This is a place where Trump’s dealing make could be an asset.
In the past week, the Trump administration finally announced a new nominee for the ambassador to Afghanistan. This is a step in the right direction, but much more still remains to be done politically. While American interest in the country has declined, U.S. diplomats remain incredibly influential among Afghan politicians and the American presence continues to be largely supported by Afghan civilians.
It may be the case that more troops are needed to support the American efforts in Afghanistan, but these should be there to support a clear diplomatic strategy. Right now, there is no clear political path forward and after six months in office, the Trump administration should focus on plotting a clear roadmap towards peace. Otherwise, U.S. troops are likely to only help maintain a violent stalemate that enriches the Afghan political elite, while leaving the rest of Afghanistan to suffer.
Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College, who has been conducting research in Afghanistan since 2007. He is author of Bazaar Politics (Stanford 2011) and Losing Afghanistan (Stanford 2016) and co-author with Anna Larson of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan (2014).