Current efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are based on a misunderstanding of the country's culture and social structure. As three new books show, defeating the Taliban will require local, bottom-up efforts -- beginning with a deep understanding of tribal and subtribal politics.
With the Taliban resurgent, reconstruction faltering, and opium poppy cultivation at an all-time high, Afghanistan is at risk of collapsing into chaos. If Washington wants to save the international effort there, it must increase its commitment to the area and rethink its strategy -- especially its approach to Pakistan, which continues to give sanctuary to insurgents on its tribal frontier.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Washington opted for a troop-lite approach to removing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Over the next four years, the civilian and military components of the international presence in Afghanistan grew, even though the strategic focus of the United States and the United Kingdom shifted to Iraq. During this time, the remnants of the Taliban slowly regrouped and began preparations to launch a large-scale insurgency, which erupted in 2006. Since then, the number of international forces in Afghanistan has increased each year, as the 47-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has attempted to tame the Pashtun-dominated south, the Taliban's heartland. The U.S. troop surge in 2010 heralded a further evolution in the West's strategy.
Yet peace will remain elusive unless the international community can deal with the five binds that have proven difficult to escape in Afghanistan.
The first is the country's overall strategic, political dilemma: Should ISAF focus its activities solely on countering terrorism and leave Afghans to run the economy and politics as they want? Or, as Mao would have it, should the international community attempt to transform the swamp in which the Taliban swim -- that is, affect major political and socioeconomic change in the country? Inevitably, this will mean incorporating some of the Taliban and their mostly Pashtun supporters into the political fold. Although there is a danger of extrapolating too much from the Iraq experience, the manner in which the U.S. military brought the Sunni minority on board -- through assiduous tribal cooptation and the harnessing of tribal antipathy toward foreign fighters -- is instructive. But unlike Sunnis in Iraq, the Pashtun and the Taliban represent the majority of Afghans, at least in the south. They have to be converted en masse.
Progress will to an extent hinge on managing the second bind: finding a way for ISAF to work more productively with the Afghan government. Many Afghan warlords have transformed themselves into businessmen, and many of them are well connected in the political world. Curbing the excesses of these powerbrokers is essential. At the same time, however, the stability that they and their private militias offer can be utilized for the good of Afghanistan...