Friday, December 4, 2009

Afghanistan snippets...

Some (unconnected and possibly disjointed) observations on Afghanistan:

  • There is some discussion re modeling the "surge" in Afghanistan on the surge in Iraq, at least in certain respects. One subject is discussion regarding if it is possible to generate the Afghan equivalent of the Iraq "sawha" or "awakening." Are the tribes in Afghanistan sufficiently similar to those in Iraq to make this feasible? Some resources would seem to indicate that the answer is 'yes.' For example, War & Reality in Afghanistan: "It’s the Tribes, Stupid” strongly endorses the "tribal" approach to Afghanistan; and "A Strategy in Afghanistan: One Tribe at a Time" (45-pg PDF), written by a U.S. Army Special Forces major based on his experiences, also strongly endorses a tribal approach. However, there are some counter-arguments. "My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun “Tribes," written with input/research from the HTS Human Terrain Teams attached to the U.S. Army argues otherwise. It "... warns that the desire for "tribal engagement" in Afghanistan, executed along the lines of the recent "Surge" strategy in Iraq, is based on an erroneous reading of the human terrain." The paper argues that the nature of tribes in Afghanistan is very different, and that "Whereas in some other countries tribes are structured like trees, tribes in Afghanistan are like jellyfish." If true, this more fluid and changing notion of tribe, and of the conflicts between various groups in Afghanistan will make it significantly harder to replicate a "tribal" strategy...
  • Much has been said and much ink spilled on the "corruption" in Afghanistan. From favored "strongman" Hamid Karzai was transformed in a fairly short time frame into the symbol of corruption in Afghanistan, with the presidential election being the main catalyst for this change in perception... True, there was ballot stuffing by pro-Karzai elements, and 28% of his votes were thrown out as being fraudulent. Many U.S. politicians along with the administration, true to their love of black and white, of simple solutions, allied with a disdain for nuance and/or complexity, opted for a procrustean solution. They denounced Karzai as the embodiment of corruption, while giving his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, a free pass. It is instructive to remember that the electoral commission also tossed out 18% of Abdullah's votes as being fraudulent. After this the election was destined to go to second round, but that was aborted by Abdullah's withdrawal, which elected Karzai by default... One wonders why the Obama administration painted itself into a corner on this issue. After all, there was no doubt that Karzai would win even if there had been less fraud and if the election had initially gone to a second round... And with the U.S. pinning its hopes for withdrawal on the "standing up" of the ANA/ANP (representing the central government), diminishing its standing did not seem a particularly smart move.
  • Further on corruption, this blogger wonders if all the folks who suggest that it would be a good idea to bribe some Afghans to switch sides (i.e. to support the U.S. and to fight the Taliban) feel any disconnect between this suggestion of theirs and their simultaneous condemnation of the corruption in Afghanistan. For example, this blogger heard Thomas Ricks touch on corruption during his review on NPR of the situation in Afghanistan. After agreeing that it would be a good idea for the U.S. "bring bundles of cash" to "rent" Afghans, he then suggested that "renting people is not a bad idea, if it allow you to get some breathing space to operate and to bring a newer, less corrupt Afghan government into place." Now, granted, Ricks did speak of a 'less corrupt" government. However, most others just blanket denounce Afghan corruption, while blithely approving suggestions to "buy," "bribe", or "rent" Afghans... with no thought that the latter is a manifestation and enabler/consequence of the former.
  • This blogger wonders re what the acceptable level of corruption is! Also from "My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun “Tribes," we read "A more traditional form of Afghan social organization is the patronage network. Patronage networks in both the north and south are dependent on the ability of the patron, or khan, to distribute resources to make a convincing case for leadership... " It is likely that any Afghan political leader would need to engage in some level of patronage to ensure his position, with the attendant consequences for transparency and clean government. Based on his having lived many years in a "developing country" (note: in the pre-PC days this used to be called a "third world" country), this blogger is inclined to believe that most citizen are not as exercised about major corruption in a nebulous, far-away central government (be it the skimming of foreign aid, the taking bribes to award major contracts, the putting of one's finger on the balance to assure re-election, etc., etc.). It is the daily, comparatively petty, local corruption that probably really galls the average Afghan e.g. being unable to get a permit without greasing someone's palm; losing a court case because the opponent paid out more than you did; etc. This would probably be present and a cause for dissatisfaction even if the central government dialed back its corruption significantly...
Finally, regarding the leadership in Afghanistan, this blogger would repeat his admonition from January 2002, that as the administration decides who it wants to work with in Afghanistan, it should make sure it does not fall victim to ethnocentrism...

From dictionary.com. Ethnocentrism: The tendency to evaluate other groups according to the values and standards of one's own ethnic group, especially with the conviction that one's own ethnic group is superior to the other groups.

Reprint of OPED 9 A new government for Afghanistan, from 01/19/2002:



With the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, efforts shifted to setting up a government to pull together the fractious group of squabbling factions that exist in that fragmented nation. A feudal society divided along ethnic (Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Almaks, Turkmen, Baloch, etc.), tribal, and family lines, the various factions ferociously control their areas of influence and jockey among themselves for power. Warlords control different areas and territories. Into this mix have stepped the U.S. and her allies, to assist in the creation of a government intended to stitch together these disparate pieces into a coherent whole. The intent is to make sure that Afghanistan does not return to a situation of anarchy, in which terrorists can find refuge in a country without central authority.

Following a meeting of many of the factions in Bonn, Germany, an interim government was constituted to start the slow process of forming a national government. This is to be followed in six months by a 'loya jirga', or meeting of tribal elders, to determine the shape of a final government. As this process evolves the Bush administration will have to decide which factions or leaders they want to back and lend support to. Hopefully this decision will be based on a solid understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the various leaders and the interplay among their different positions, and not on a superficial reading of the situation. Meeting with the various power-brokers and players it would be extremely easy to fall victim to ethnocentrism - gravitating towards and overestimating the importance of the younger, suited and groomed, English-speaking, modern-seeming leader, while ignoring and underestimating the older, dusty, locally-clothed, Daro or Pashto-speaking, feudal-looking, man in the corner who really wields the power.

Already, in the earlier stages of the fight against the Taliban, television chains presented interviews with Afghan 'leaders' to their viewing audiences - some of whom turned out to be 'leaders' more by virtue of the fact that they were telegenic and English-speaking than by their actually wielding any real influence in the field. It is to be devoutly hoped that the administration does not make the same error.

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