Working Beyond the Afghan Civil War


karzai hands pic.jpgFor some time, I have been writing that the US has lost sight of its al Qaeda-rationalized strategic objectives in Afghanistan and stumbled into a civil war. Recently resigned US official Matthew Hoh also frames the challenge in Afghanistan as that of a 35 year old civil war in which the forces are far bigger than anything the US can influence.
Now, my friend and IISS consulting senior fellow Nader Mousavizadeh also characterizes the mess in Afghanistan as a civil war in which one side is inimical to American interests. He wants to condition the support for the Karzai government on a clean-up campaign.
My objection to this approach is that it remains a far cry from why we went to Afghanistan and doesn’t on its merits and given other possible containment strategies justify the sacrifice of lives and scarce financial resources.
The Afghanistan quagmire is also an ongoing global embarrassment of American impotence in failing to redirect and rewire one of the poorest nations of the world. The cost can’t be measured just in terms of troops and dollars but also fueling Iran’s ambitions and those of other would-be foes and the costs of doubt in US abilities among allies.
Mousavizadeh writes:

Two conclusions are inescapable from the fiasco of Afghanistan’s presidential elections and the McChrystal assessment: There is no electoral solution to Afghan government’s crisis of legitimacy, and there is no military solution to the challenge of the Taliban. And when observing the current Afghan conflict not from the perspective of America’s post-9/11 intervention, but from Afghanistan’s own quarter-century of warfare, a third conclusion becomes still more apparent: What we confront is not, in fact, an insurgency but rather a civil war — one whose resolution can only be found in a new decentralized Afghan politics based on the enduring, if ugly, realities of power there, and not through another decade of Western military intervention.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai’s main rival from the second round of the elections — and his own subsequent appointment as president for another term — it is that the ability of outsiders to influence the existing politics of Afghanistan is now near zero, even when the object of our entreaties is a politician whose very existence has long depended entirely on Western support and funding. Like a patient rising from a hospital bed after a near-death experience only to rob his doctor blind on the way out the door, Karzai has conclusively demonstrated that his utility to Western interests — as well as to the Afghan people whom he’s grossly robbed of a chance for representative government — is over.
This leaves the West with a stark dilemma. We can proceed to invest a government we ourselves have called fraudulent with an authority that few Afghans are willing to grant it, hoping it will eventually eschew the corrupt behavior that has sustained its power to date. Or we can make the unquestionably more difficult decision and insist, as a condition of our continued support, that a new political compact be put in place.

Nader Mousavizadeh’s proposal for a new political compact is actually quite intriguing and along the lines of something I support — which is to get a Bonn Conference II in place drawing together various power players across the board in Afghanistan. He suggests that Lakhdar Brahimi and Richard Holbrooke engineer this. I would add that the personalities driving this also include Pashtun leaders technically but not too enthusiastically inside the Taliban tent and include participants from Iran and other key regional stakeholders.
But that kind of political compact may be undermined rather than moved along by a surge of more US hard power into Afghanistan.
Civil wars that matter can be approached with a combination of approaches — and a new diplomatically purshed governing compact in Afghanistan is an interesting approach, but the tough truth is that this is not what General McChrystal is calling for.
— Steve Clemons


3 comments on “Working Beyond the Afghan Civil War

  1. Dan Kervick says:

    Mousavizadeh doesn’t add much clarity by insisting on an overly strict distinction between insurgency and civil war, as though the discovery that there is some form of civil conflict occurring in Afghanistan is either momentous or enlightening. Some civil wars are insurgencies; some insurgencies are civil wars. That hardly matters. Anyway, these are just alternative labels; and deciding what labels to use won’t tell us much about what our interests are in Afghanistan, or how to achieve them.
    Steve, I am struck by how frequently your assessments revert to your obsession with the symbolic projection of dignity, the fear of exposure of limits and the preservation of surface allures of capability. You sometimes seem committed to a nihilistic and vacuous ideology of pure “faking it” for its own sake that is detached from any practical endeavors and substantive commitments or ends. I don’t want to deny that the preservation of reputation and strength for competence is a component of a country’s being able to get what it wants in the world. But you frequently write as though that is the only thing that matters.
    I think we can just take it for granted that, whichever way the US chooses to go forward from here, the path is going to be covered in a certain amount of embarrassment and shame, and will necessitate the unavoidable recognition by ourselves and others in the world of a variety of US failures and embarrassments. War is crappy, dirty and humiliating, and the people and countries who fight them screw up about as often as they win, and lose their dignity a hundred times over. The same thing is true of any kind of struggle or strenuous endeavor. “Looking the part” might be good for the Ben Affleks of this world. But in the real arena of events, the undignified, exposed, humiliated and multiply-failed sometimes win in the long run, while the golden-maned, dignified and well-buffed pretty boys might preserve appearances and dignity with careful reticence, but don’t accomplish anything. The idea that the US can preserve its influence and prosperity in this world by a policy of careful avoidance of embarrassment and exposure is naive.
    There seems to be a conspiracy of awkward silence in this country right now about frankly identifying and forthrightly debating supposed US interests in Afghanistan its environs. Could we please move away from all these side debates about the reputations and pretensions of US officials, or the many confusing sufferings and political deficiencies of Afghanistan and its people, and start talking turkey? What is so important about Afghanistan, for *Americans*, that requires Americans being there? What ends *must* they try to achieve, and what is purely optional?
    I would suggest that always, a clear, unembarrassed and frank listing and prioritization of US interests in the region is the place to start, and that we work back to a rational policy from there. The persistent absurdity and lack of intelligibility of our ongoing national Afghanistan seems partly due to the fact that so many people seem determined to grapple over means, and grasp at excuses and immediate-term talking points, but are too timid and embarrassed to talk about ends.
    You’re the supposed “realist”, Steve. Please get more real.


  2. Zathras says:

    I regret that this post got so quickly buried by other submissions.
    I don’t agree with Steve Clemons’ view of the loya jirga idea’s implications for American reinforcements; an improvement in security would make Mousavizadeh’s proposal more attractive to Afghans outside Karzai’s government, not less. Nor do I fault Gen. McChrystal for not publicly recommending a policy change that implicitly calls for pushing the Afghan government he has to work with aside.
    However, that government and our evident lack of influence on it are huge obstacles to our war effort in Afghanistan. Some way around that obstacle must be found, or we’ll just be buying empty time. Mousavizadeh’s proposal deserves to be carefully, and publicly, considered.


  3. John Waring says:

    I just read this article on the AFPAK channel then came to TWN and read Steve’s entry. I feel I have just experienced a eureka moment.
    The tough truth is the McChrystal plan needs to be thrown out bag and baggage. Since the Afghan conflict is a civil war, increasing American troop levels is meaningless because more troops will not address the root causes of the conflict. It is about them. It is not about us, and we need to get over ourselves, and over our fixation over what nineteen lucky thugs did to us eight years ago.
    Nadar Mousavizadeh has just given us the political analysis we need to move ourselves out of the bog we are stuck in.
    Now we are finally getting somewhere.


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