How to Win in Afghanistan

Students at the Afghan National Police Academy. Flickr/DVIDSHUB

The United States should take a different political approach to Afghanistan.

Fifteen years, thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars later, the United States has failed to meet most of its key objectives in Afghanistan. Mission failed.

Now what? Our current approach, if allowed to continue, guarantees a chaotic future for Afghanistan and an open door for radical Islamists in Central Asia.

Such a state of affairs would herald a major strategic defeat for the United States. Islamists ultimately seek to seize control in both Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and then expand into Central Asia.

A debacle in Afghanistan means we may face another global conflict. Turkey has morphed into an Islamic state, and the Gulf states are financing radical Sunni terror groups meant to encircle and contain the mullahs in Iran—including extremists in Afghanistan.

Will the Islamists achieve their objectives? No, and we do not want to find out. They need to be defeated now, while the situation is still manageable. An alternative strategy can avert a strategic catastrophe later.

Our incompetent efforts at Afghan nation building rest on three shaky pillars that need to be rethought:

• Highly centralized political decisionmaking.

• Pashtun control of the overly powerful central government, the national police and the Afghan National Army.

• Excessive deference to Pakistan’s interests and policies in Afghanistan and the region.

This flawed scheme has its roots in the key events of modern Afghan history: the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (in response to the 9/11 attacks) and the subsequent December 2001 Bonn Agreement to reconstitute the Afghan state structure following the war.

With the defeat of the Taliban, the United States and the UN imposed Afghanistan’s first president Hamid Karzai—a Pashtun—on the Afghan people against their will. Later, during a December 2002 constitutional convention in Kabul, the United States and the “international community” forced Afghans to accept centralized governance despite much internal resistance.

After Karzai’s departure from the political scene in 2014, the United States tried to rectify the most egregious features of his corrupt rule by imposing an unwieldy power-sharing arrangement involving President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah in the newly created position of “national chief executive.” This arrangement has also failed.

It is time to let the Afghan people determine their own future. They should have the freedom to:

• Choose a federal-style political system.

• Elect leaders without an ethnic litmus test.

• Officially recognize the border with Pakistan.

• Establish regional militias and constabularies.

The United States and other Western powers must begin to take into account the interests of all regional actors in Afghanistan, including India and Central Asian nations.

Afghans should have access to anti-poppy herbicides. The poppy crop, grown mostly in Pashtun areas, is the backbone of the Pakistan-Taliban terror networks and makes systematic corruption a main force in a large sector of the Afghan economy.

The political system we instituted is designed to enable Kabul to control the country, but it is hopelessly counterproductive. It makes Afghanistan uncontrollable and undermines our natural allies inside Afghanistan—those who are fighting radical Islam, namely the Tajik, the Uzbek, and the Hazara communities who represent the majority of Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic population. But we persist in weakening them and kowtowing to the Pashtuns—the group from which the overwhelming majority of Islamic radicals emerge.

To this day, the president of Afghanistan appoints all governors, mayors, police chiefs—and even elementary school teachers! This not only further encourages corruption, but undermines legitimacy. People resent having their mayors, governors and law enforcement officers imposed on them by the central government. Americans would never tolerate such government overreach.

An example of how our failed policy makes matters worse is the recent attempted assassination of Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. His followers represent a majority of the people in the provinces of northern Afghanistan.

Recall that after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, General Dostum led Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara local fighters into battle against the Taliban army. They were able to defeat the Taliban army with the help of U.S. air support and embedded U.S. Special Forces. The battle only cost one U.S. casualty. Dostum led those fighters on horseback against Taliban tanks and gun emplacements. Now, he and his heroic horse soldiers are depicted in an equestrian statue known as the America’s Response Monument. The statue is at Ground Zero in New York City.

Today, the north of Afghanistan—the gateway to Central Asia—has become a target for Taliban and ISIS forces. The Afghan National Army has not been able to defeat them, which has prompted now-Vice President Dostum to go to the front himself to rally support and repel the Taliban incursion.

In October, while traveling in convoy through Faryab Province, Dostum and his entourage were ambushed. More than fifty of his bodyguards were killed and many more were wounded. Dostum barely escaped with his life. This attack deserved the strongest of condemnations. It has been hard to discern any negative response by the Obama administration.