- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2010


At last weekend’s grand Lisbon summon- ing of coalition commanders in Afghanistan, “progress” was the magic word. Is there enough progress to keep progressing? You see, sir, if you look at the metrics of progress. …

The war in Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency (you might recall) so the only progress that really matters is the “people” progress. The NATO inquisitees probably pointed to a recently released poll showing that the percentage of Afghan people who report having “no sympathy at all for the insurgency” has risen from 36 to 55 this year. Yet in this time-warped land of peculiar values, we ought to be careful how we poll the people progress.

For in truth, one man’s insurgent (to parallel the old axiom) may be another man’s speed-dial godfather. This Alikozai village’s Takfiri enemy may be that Ghilzai village’s community chest, doling out snacks with the government’s consent. Do not think the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or its security apparatus is exempt from such ambiguities.

And what’s an Afghan fellow to say? The minister of the Hajj steals from the hajjis. The chairman of Kabul Bank, a World Series of Poker champion, gambles away depositors’ livelihoods. The village teacher takes bribes from students to fix grades and distribute books. And we, the International Security Assistance Force, want to know how Afghans feel about the “insurgents”?

A counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that focuses its metrics for “progress” on the government, rather than the people, will fail. “President Bush took his eye off of the ball in Afghanistan,” goes the vague metaphor. But what is far more consequential is that we have misidentified the ball altogether. Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon, for example, returned from an Afghanistan trip with glad tidings last month (at a time of record U.S. casualties in the nearly 10-year-old war). “Progress has been rapid this year,” he wrote. He emphasized training and partnership with the Afghan government’s security forces as the golden metric. The tripling of trainers, the doubling of security forces’ pay and the high partnership rates signaled success.

But kick the capacity-industrial complex for a minute and think like an Afghan: From the viewpoint of, say, Paktiyans forced to pay off the chief of police, what’s so special about increasing the pay of thugs? Or about the Americans partnering with the police? “The Americans are complicit with the corrupt bastards at record levels? Splendid.”

The problem here is much more disturbing than “lack of capacity.” You have heard that Afghanistan is hopelessly decentralized, too tribal and geographically divided to yield to higher powers. Quite the contrary: In the wake of the Kabul Bank run, the acquittal and protection of Afghanistan’s slimiest “civil servants” (such as Hamid Karzai appointee Muhammad Zia Salehi), massive government land grabs and increasing signs of government profiting off of the drug trade, it is tragically plain that Afghanistan is indeed united to excess under an oligarchy of criminal patronage networks.

That President Karzai, himself a key underwriter of these networks of criminal profiteering, prefers speeding up the security-force buddy-buddying and transfer of authority should raise suspicions. Getting to the bottom if it: In Afghanistan, when you have a problem, it doesn’t really matter what the famed local tribal council reckons. What matters is whether you stand in the personal favor of powerful men like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother. Indeed, the more we fuss over Afghanistan’s supposed decentralized capacity, the more a few powerful personalities deepen their centralized authority.

But what did we expect? Perhaps we have grown insecure when it comes to recalling the lessons of our own republic - our Tocquevillian emphasis on solving problems through local civil society, our mistrust in central government’s ability to distribute gobs of money. Still, even our statist naivete does not excuse President Karzai’s recent spout of relativism on taking cash from Iran. “We are grateful for the Iranian help in this regard. The United States is doing the same thing, they’re providing cash to some of our offices.” Many apologies to his excellency, but until Iran sacrifices thousands of its finest for the Afghan cause, he would be well-advised to get off it. Meanwhile, we would be wise to swallow our “good war” pride and admit that it is this - the internationally agreed-upon, soft power-centric war - and not Iraq that truly risks spiraling into the gleeful hands of the Iranians and the Shariah fundamentalists.

So what is the solution? Tempting as it is to say there is not one, the solution starts with admitting that touting government progress is not the solution. The solution will be measured in people progress: To what extent are the Afghan people making local decisions, rather than USAID money-baggers with their energy Americana wind-farm schemes? How are Afghans being empowered and not the Karzai family criminal syndicate?

At his former command in Iraq, coalition commander Gen. David H. Petraeus used to inquire cryptically: “Tell me how this ends.” Afghanistan is not such a riddle: We either prioritize people progress - and not, say, institutional capacity - or we watch the Taliban turn Kabul’s stadiums from soccer fields back into execution chambers. With a record 83 percent of Afghan adults backing negotiations with armed, anti-government groups, the tipping point is palpable. It’s best that we snap out of our sleepwalking quickly.

Pat Knapp is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and recently returned from an Afghanistan research trip. The opinions expressed herein contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of the Department of Defense.

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