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.
For example, the border town of Spin Boldak, located south of Kandahar, serves as the gateway to and from northern Pakistan. It is controlled by its own generalissimo, Abdul Razziq. The thirty-something de facto commander of the 3,500-strong border police is said to earn an estimated $5 million-$6 million per month from his various border businesses. But he also contributes to stability, not only in the border region but in Kandahar City itself, as his positive military contribution in the Afghan-led Malajat operation in August illustrated. Following the failure of an earlier operation hastily organized by the regional governor, Razziq's forces quickly swooped down on the area, arresting Taliban and seizing explosives.
Whether Western leaders like it or not, powerbrokers such as Razziq have a positive role to play in developing Afghanistan. But that role can only be fulfilled if the government can stop them from perniciously distorting the country's economy. To date, the government has been focused on ensuring security and distributing profits by concentrating on foreign diplomacy (for obtaining continued aid) and local patronage (to maintain control). Consequently, the economic system is characterized by widening inequality, fueling grievances and greed. Afghanistan is now the third-most unequal society in the world after Angola and Equatorial Guinea. The Asia Foundation's 2010 public opinion survey shows that just under half of Afghans believe their country is moving in the right direction. High levels of insecurity, corruption, poor government, and unemployment are cited as the main reasons for pessimism.
The third bind concerns the effectiveness of aid. By 2010, the international community was spending more than $100 billion annually on in-kind military and other assistance in Afghanistan. This includes over $10 billion in development aid annually, amounting to $333 per Afghan per year. Yet given the lack of development impact -- as measured by the existence of an economy independent of donor money -- it may have been better (and considerably more efficient) if the international community had simply airdropped bundles of money throughout the country.
Afghanistan has not one but three economies: the aid economy, the largest one; a second illicit economy centered on drugs and smuggling; and a tiny licit economy, both formal and informal. There is very little industry (a traditional route for export-led development in low-wage countries), virtually no mining (despite considerable potential), and only an embryonic service sector. The relatively glitzy world of Kabul contrasts starkly with the grinding poverty of the rural areas.
Aid not only disincentivizes normal entrepreneurial activity and distorts key economic factors, such as overvaluing the currency due to large donor inflows, but also offers local politicians convenient means to externalize their choices, problems, and failures. The Afghan state's shortcomings when it comes to service delivery are commonly blamed on a lack of external aid or on Pakistan, and the solutions are generally expected to come from outside as well. If nothing else, recent revelations over Iranian "soft aid" (cash flowing directly to the Afghan government) illustrate the limits of the political influence that can be achieved simply by sending prodigious sums of Western aid.
The fourth bind is regional dependency; peace in Afghanistan depends on stability in neighboring Pakistan. Yet Pakistan needs its own state-building project and to address the dynamics of its relationship with India. And Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan is complicated by Kabul's refusal to recognize the border that separates them and bisects the Pashtun; three million Afghans and 20 million of their largely Pashtun relatives live inside Pakistan. A regional solution also necessitates finding a formula in Pakistan and Afghanistan for two societies -- one a centralized, Western-styled democracy; the other localized and tribal-based -- to coexist, while ensuring sufficient economic growth.
The final bind is that of time. From Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the window in which foreigners can make a notable difference in peace-building missions is generally assumed to be approximately one decade, after which voters at home tend to grow weary as other priorities take over, and locals view foreign aid less as welcome assistance than undue outside interference. As the Taliban saying has it: they have the time, and the rest of the world has the watches.
The international community's first priority is to find the means to make aid more than just a feeding trough for local warlords. It could be much more productively used to assist entrepreneurs in turning good ideas into businesses. One of the few available approaches to creating jobs is to add value to Afghan agriculture, especially in the conflict-ridden south. Kandahar, for example, produces more than 70 percent of the country's annual 80,000-ton pomegranate crop, and the Arghandab region to the north of Kandahar City produces 80 percent of that figure. The return for pomegranate farmers exceeds $6,000 per hectare, compared to just $2,000 for poppy farmers. If the lower-grade pomegranates could be turned into juice for the burgeoning international market, even more value could be added. Establishing what is described in contemporary consultant-speak as a pomegranate "value chain" offers one of the few opportunities to spur job growth in Afghanistan.
Second, ISAF must play a role in setting the conditions for reconciliation between the Taliban and other Afghans, but it must also encourage the Karzai administration to focus on the affairs of the provinces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's executive style of governance has led Kabul to deal with the provinces primarily through proxy powerbrokers. This "representation deficit" is exacerbated by the current system of rotating governors and the appointment (rather than election) of district-level representatives. For all of the international community's attempts to instill a structure of democratic governance, the one system that has endured Afghanistan's political ebbs and flows is the one controlled by tribal elders. It must remain a force for stability.
Third, working with Kabul also means choosing when to get tough with local partners. It demands getting more out of aid programs, setting scorecards for evaluating their positive impact on job creation, improving policy, developing infrastructure, and encouraging more efficient and responsive government. It means simplifying governance procedures, identifying where local capacity exists, and working with local actors to prioritize resources and build their capacity to govern. The fact that there is no Afghan school of public administration eight years after the Karzai government took office speaks volumes about missed opportunities. Afghans themselves must make economic reform a priority.
Fourth, a regional solution will require working closely with the Pakistani government to keep it onside and assist it with its own fraught path to development and good governance. It will also entail addressing regional insecurities by enabling rapprochement between India and Pakistan -- not least a resolution in Kashmir. It is no small order, but it is a crucial issue that is closely linked to the duration of international commitment to Afghanistan.
Much has been achieved in improving Afghan-Pakistani trade, which has increased from $40 million to $1 billion in a decade, but much more can be done. Incentives for smuggling, notably the external tariff differential between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- which encourages cheap entry of goods into Afghanistan and then smuggling back into Pakistan -- must be reduced or eliminated. At the same time, there must be a greater focus on creating opportunities for trade through, for example, instituting regularized exchanges between chambers of commerce and curtailing transloading requirements, whereby goods are reloaded at the borders because Afghan and Pakistani trucks are not allowed to drive in each other's territory.
In addition, the international community must tackle corruption within the Afghan government, or the counterinsurgency effort will be doomed. A culture of impunity gave rise to the Taliban in the 1990s and continues to feed the organization today.
Changing how ISAF contracts are granted could be a key means of demonstrating a different way of doing business while bringing about a modicum of power for the international community. It may not cut the powerbrokers out altogether -- not least since they control the only companies capable of carrying out many essential tasks -- but it could change their behavior. One mechanism for achieving this would be to establish a contractual scorecard for ISAF contracts to ensure that contractors are not only seen to be complying with governance requirements but are made to think about the need to spread their wealth around. Such a scorecard would include rankings on local ownership and procurement, female participation in management and ownership, records of tax payments, and employee equity.