The L-Word in Afghanistan

Can the United States Provide What Kabul Needs?

One would be hard-pressed to find a news article or editorial on the Afghan election that did not mention the word "legitimacy." Success in Afghanistan, it has been repeated ad nauseam, hinges on winning popular support through governmental legitimacy, with elections crucial to that process. Yet if that were true, why has the Taliban been so effective at gaining supporters? Mullah Muhammad Omar has not organized elections, nor has he enacted the "reforms" Westerners demand of the regime in Kabul, such as the inclusion of diverse groups in the government.

The short answer is that in Afghanistan how power is acquired matters less than how it is used. Two factors determine the political allegiance of the elites who dominate Afghanistan's rural politics: security and basic governance. And on both counts the Taliban often score higher than the government in Kabul. The key to improving the government's fortunes lies not in better election monitors but in maintaining order and providing governance.

From decades of bitter experience, Afghans know that those who support the stronger side in a military conflict are less likely to suffer bodily harm, now and in the future. Accordingly, popular assistance to the Taliban and other Afghan insurgents has risen sharply in areas where those insurgents have increased their military presence and inflicted casualties on NATO or Afghan government personnel. Calculations about future military power, meanwhile, have been affected by growing fears that the United States will eventually abandon Hamid Karzai to the Taliban wolves. "At the beginning everyone supported the Americans," according to Hanif Shah Hosseini, a member of the Afghan parliament interviewed recently by The Wall Street Journal's Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal. "But now a lot of locals don't believe in a U.S. or government victory anymore. They expect the Americans to leave, so they are casting their support to the Taliban."

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis