Afghanistan - Of Tribes and Allies for a Political Strategy
Afghanistan is a mess. Afghan President Karzai, in his second inauguration address, has vowed to combat corruption, to make it possible for foreign troops to leave in five years and to work with his main rivals. General Stanley McChrystal has proposed more troops for NATO's Afghanistan counterinsurgency operations. Vice President Biden has called for strengthened counterterrorism. Ambassador Karl Eickenberry has informed President Karzai that he needs to clean up corruption before NATO sends more soldiers.
Troop deploying nations may cheer at the thought of bringing their soldiers home in five years, but Karzai's promise can only be fulfilled if he has the authority and the ability to deliver. While the current Kabul central government is corrupt and ineffective, no number of fresh military troops alone can make it work. The urgent test for the strategy is whether is whether Afghan governance is possible and whether the strategy can win public support in Afghanistan, the United States and among the NATO allies. Power sharing between local leaders and Kabul is critical if NATO is to avoid ruling as an occupying force governing Afghanistan. Without a legitimate Afghan government, NATO is destined to end in Afghanistan as did the British and the Russians - in defeat and withdrawal. Today's search for a winning political and military strategy in Afghanistan is not only a test case for NATO. It is a test for our allies, and especially for Germany as it redefines its role as a contributor to global security. It is also a search for a legitimate Afghan government based on shared power between local leaders that form the basis of Afghan society and Kabul.
A different approach to governance in the region is sorely needed. The Af-Pak region is one primarily of ethnic groups that want to govern themselves (as warlords, tribal leaders, princes). They reject the central government in Kabul that rules them.
When it comes to allies, NATO's partners have long argued for nation building and development assistance as part of the strategy. Since 1994 the German Bundeswehr has been deployed in out-of-area NATO missions and certainly the war in Afghanistan needs Germany's Bundeswehr combat forces to help ensure success. The upcoming Bundestag debate this December over NATO strategy will show whether Europe, like Germany is the partner we have come to expect -- a democratically strong and militarily responsible one to help secure peace in Afghanistan with us in NATO.
President Obama's studied deliberation over an Afghanistan strategy takes into consideration the disturbing fact that the voting publics in Germany, America and other NATO countries are not convinced that either proposed military strategy or the Karzai's new statement abut fighting corruption will end the war with an Afghan government capable of governing.
The missing link in the NATO strategy is just that Afghan government capable of governing without outside military forces. NATO military operations are essential for providing security from the Taliban threat and for defeating al-Qaeda; however when NATO leaves, Afghans must be able to govern themselves.
Afghan President Karzai's commitment in his second inauguration address to combat corruption and make it possible for foreign troops to leave in five years simply lacks legitimacy that only Afghan local leaders can bestow together with the president.
That legitimacy to govern, not an anti-corruption or anti-narcotics campaign, needs to be the first priority of the upcoming London conference and of a Loya Jirga, an Afghan Grand Council.There is growing support for decentralized governance based on local leaders (ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks, warlords, governors) to solve local problems and provide national leadership, which would strengthen NATO security operations effectiveness. If power sharing can be established, then the Kabul government and the local leaders (also with local militia) could deal with local and national issues of corruption, narcotics and security.
During Chancellor Merkel's meeting with President Obama on November 3, they discussed how to empower the Afghans to rule themselves. The Karzai-endorsed conference could achieve a new constitutionally based power-sharing arrangement between Kabul and local leaders that would allow NATO to provide security until it could depart with confidence that local leaders can combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The conference could follow the model of the December 2001 Petersburg Conference in Bonn, one which led to the Bonn Agreement on a new Afghanistan government and the convening of a Loya Jirga. That 2001 Loya Jirga elected Hamid Karzai to head the transitional government. A new constitutional Loya Jirga could examine the corrupt and inefficient central government and decide on changes that would devolve power to local leaders and establish a balanced relationship with the presidency in Kabul. Unfortunately, the current constitution does not command genuinely deep popular support, cannot contribute to national stability, nor can it allow NATO to transfer power to Afghanis to ensure security.
Empowering ethnic leaders to govern, rather than depending on the national leader of a corrupt and failing nation state, could create multiple partners for NATO, buy-in with local leaders and acquiescence from Kabul. That would leave NATO to use its rapid-reaction forces to enforce local rule and provide security from the Taliban operating outside its ethnic boundaries.
It took Europe decades for the European Union to emerge from World War II and to create governance structures that have ended centuries-old conflicts. The principle of subsidiarity, governance at the lowest level works and could be a European example for Afghan local control. Devolution of political power in the Af-Pak region should be the top priority at the next Afghanistan Conference. Perhaps then a political-military strategy could win not only the hearts and minds of the Afghans, the Europeans and Americans might agree as well.
J.D. Bindenagel is vice president at DePaul University in Chicago. He is a former U.S. Ambassador and career U.S. diplomat whose negotiating career included agreements on bilateral aviation, U.S. - German Status of Forces Agreement, Holocaust Issues, and Blood Diamonds.