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Afghanistan: Political Cohesion and Victim-Blaming

August 4, 2010

Steve Coll has a good piece out with two important themes: firstly, that any American strategy for preserving the present Afghan state only functions at the margins of what Afghans can achieve in internal political cohesion, and secondly, that it is not Afghanistan’s fault political cohesion has become such a distant goal.

The US has strongly indicated its wish to wind down in Afghanistan, and international and domestic political trends are strongly encouraging a smaller Afghan strategy. Of course, the US has signaled these intentions without much of an idea of what sort of political maneuvering it would need to make to control the inevitable power vacuüm as its forces withdraw. Many ideas are on the table – empowering local communities, negotiating with the Taliban, strengthening Afghan armed forces and law enforcement – but there does not seem to be an overall strategy for integrating them with the 2011 withdrawal date or a process of internal political reform.

Exacerbating that latter point is the coalition lashing its fortunes to that of Hamid Karzai, endangering the credibility of the local partner even among supporters of democracy. The question of whether he will utilize the power he has effectively remains open and vital. American strategy seems to continually vacillate between misguided centralization, which gives Karzai too much power and weakens political cohesion among anti-Karzai, anti-Taliban actors, and misguided localization, where Western forces inject a lot of funds and in some cases armament into various rivalries and political contexts it does not quite understand.

Coll’s final, and I think perhaps his most important point, is that should this complex interplay of US, ISAF and Afghan decisions fail to deliver a stable, constitutional regime in Afghanistan, the West is likely to blame the Afghans for the result, this, despite the fact that for most of the 20th century, Afghanistan was already a unified and relatively stable regime. Nor is Afghanistan “unconquerable,” as almost any survey of Afghan history before the 20th century could prove. American attitudes towards Afghanistan have alternated between naïve universalism and reductive primordialism. Both are self-serving narratives which justify poor political strategy on its own part.

Our Afghan strategy began with an assumption of primordialism – Afghanistan’s history meant that anything smacking of nation-building was doomed to failure, and so Rumsfeld and other policymakers who already had predilections for lighter footprints pushed to ignore the issues of nation-building. Then, gradually, as it became clear that such a strategy was not working, the universalism crept in to both rhetoric and policy. Attempting to rebuild Afghanistan in the western liberal image became more popular, and since Iraq had already made it clear the “we don’t do nation-building” crowd was losing political turf, there was little reason not to. But all this social engineering came with reductions in available resources. Easily impressed with the trappings of a modern state emerging in Kabul, and perhaps confident that Afghans, wanting what we did, would behave as we wanted, the US muddled through until the Taliban resurgence we never seemed to think possible became a reality.

Now, the primordialism is back in fashion, and the victim-blaming it is fostering in Afghanistan is not just unfair and wrong, it is disguising our own faults. The reality is that Afghanistan is not a graveyard of empires or an unchanging land inhabited by die-hard traditionalists, but a country devastated and socio-politically atomized by three decades of civil war and great power intervention. Afghanistan has not always been at war, and that war will continue if we decide to leave now. But let there be no mistake about whose fault it is if Afghanistan has returned to 1990s civil war after 10 years of great power intervention. There are no laws of “History” or “Culture” that make Coll’s goals unattainable, only questions of strategy, politics, and willpower. Ultimately, the Afghans will determine their success – but there is no doubt that our nervous edging to the exits and victim-blaming are now hindering, rather than helping their cause.

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