Protecting communities is the only way to build Afghan trust
The hardy people and rugged terrain of Afghanistan have long inspired some of the world’s best writers to craft romantic tales of intrigue, perseverance and adventure. These portrayals have served to create and reinforce an idealized view of the stalwart Afghans fighting British imperialists and Soviet Communists in the isolated valleys and plains of their country, honing their techniques of ambush and defending their unchanging ways of life.
These views often portray the Afghans as implacable xenophobes hostile to outside powers or a tribal people desiring government by warlord and reflexively rejecting Western notions of democracy and human rights. Other variations of this view include “They only understand force,” “These people are religious fanatics” or, as one colonial British officer once stated it, “They are priest-ridden.” The strength with which people adhere to these views is often inversely proportional to their direct and firsthand experience with the Afghan population.
In Washington, D.C., these visions of the inherent anti-foreigner nature of the Afghans have long permeated national security policy toward their country. While this view is certainly useful when it comes to literature, and aspects of it may have been true in the past, it has little place in a discussion of Afghan policy today and what we must do to win. It is true that there has been an increase in anti-foreigner sentiment in Afghanistan in the last four years, but it is not part of some natural tendency of the Afghan people or an outgrowth of the U.S. and NATO behaving like some former occupying militaries. It is a natural response to specific grievances that can be addressed; what we must do is understand them and not be misguided by our own notions of what we think the Afghan people are like.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, we were greeted as liberators, and the quick collapse of the Taliban demonstrated just how much the Islamist movement had become despised by the people. Our adoption of a warlord strategy as a means of maintaining security while continuing the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban leaders was an outgrowth of the view that too many Western troops in Afghanistan would create a nationalist backlash because Afghans were reflexively hostile to foreigners. In some places, we restored to power warlords who had been deposed by the Taliban, and in others, we empowered individuals who regularly preyed upon the local population. Part of this policy developed out of the view that Afghans wanted a strong warlord to govern them; in the absence of a working government, this might have been a suitable though temporary solution, but our willingness to turn a blind eye to the warlords’ transgressions deeply alienated the population. In the interests of supporting the Afghanistan government, we often either didn’t care what these warlords did, or we saw their abuses as an “Afghan government” problem that exonerated us from confronting these problems directly. While many of these offenders have been replaced, this unfortunate tendency to ignore abuses also translated into a lack of curiosity about corrupt practices when it came to reconstruction and development activities. We tended to self-limit our activities due to an outsized respect for Afghan sovereignty, recognizing its rights to nonintervention but not its responsibilities to its people. For many Afghans, the Taliban’s revamped political program capitalizing on these grievances against the Afghan government was an all-too-attractive option when the Taliban returned in force in 2006.
A LACK OF STRATEGY
Many of our reconstruction and development activities have been implemented through national-level civilian programs or through military units at the tactical and operational level supplemented by civilian assistance. Too frequently, however, many of our activities have not been as successful as we would have hoped due to poor contracting practices, the monopolization of projects by government officials, inadequate consultation with local communities and a lack of strategy. These challenges have been further exacerbated by poor planning, incomplete civil-military integration and the inevitable problems that come from the frequent rotations of military units. A complicating factor to all of these ongoing issues is the adjustment of government bureaucracies, both civilian and military, to the unique challenges of counterinsurgency warfare, especially when many of them have long been focused on dealing with the problems of conventional military operations and diplomacy between established nation-states. The development and reconstruction expectations of the Afghan people were incredibly high when we invaded, and many of them quite reasonably expected their lives to change dramatically because we are a superpower. They couldn’t quite understand why things took so long to happen in their villages, why contracts were poorly executed, why corrupt officials were tolerated and why we didn’t operate throughout the country. While Afghan patience is legendary, it does have its limits — communities can take only so many dashed hopes before they turn resignedly away from the government.
Many of our security operations in Afghanistan have focused on either short-term clearing operations or intelligence-driven raids for specific targets or stressed the number of insurgents killed versus adopting a population-security posture. Some Afghan villages have been cleared so many times that it appears to them as if we have adopted a strategy of slow attrition on the civilian population through repeated operations where non-combatants accidentally get killed. The Afghans definitely do not want the Taliban’s brutal presence to return, but nor do they want to reveal themselves to friendly forces once we’ve secured an area only to see us depart, exposing them to Taliban reprisals. However, they also don’t want us to undertake all of the responsibilities of security in their villages; they have a pride in protecting their own communities in their own way and would prefer to partner with us in a spirit of cooperation and friendship rather than feel as though they have no stake in their own defense. Additionally, the Afghans are a pragmatic people, and many of them won’t fight the Taliban unless we are with them because they know they will have the close-air support, logistical assistance and command and control they need to unite a fractious group of local villagers. While direct combat operations will still be undertaken by our troops, the path to eventual success will come from working by, with and through Afghan surrogates partnered with U.S. forces rooted in community institutions to a slowly modernizing state.
SHORTCOMINGS AND PERILS
Building the government of Afghanistan in the countryside while fighting the insurgency and simultaneously maintaining the support of the population is obviously no simple task. As we have gained more experience in Afghanistan, we have grown to recognize the shortcomings of pursuing a warlord strategy, the perils of relying only on government officials to discern community views, the shortcomings of pursuing only clearing and direct-action operations, and the unsustainability of implementing development projects with either little local input or no plan for government ownership. What Afghans want from us is a well-resourced effort to help them remove the Taliban from their villages and empower local community groups, partnered and mentored with the Afghan security forces and U.S. forces, to provide the enduring security that will prevent the Taliban from returning. Once this security space is created, they next want us to help deliver the Afghan leadership they want nested in a representative community organization focused on delivering services (e.g., electricity, justice) to the population. While much of our role will move from direct intervention, such as combat operations or temporary arrangements such as leading tribal jirgas, it will eventually transition to one of facilitation and coordination. But this adjustment does not mean we abdicate our role as advocates for the Afghan people. We need to maintain an activist presence in nudging, cajoling and exhorting Afghan officials to do what is right, even if in a normal environment this might appear to be too interventionist. Afghan officials are generally trying to do what is right, but their constitution weakens local government through an overcentralization of decision-making and resources that one would normally expect to be handled by community leaders. Because coalition civilian and military officials parallel the Afghan government at all its levels, many of our activities can be devoted to helping these local representatives address problems that a more responsive and better organized central government would normally handle. The key to empowering local officials and community groups is to always be seen as a constant advocate of the interests of the people pursued in as patient a manner as possible and with real results that affect the lives of Afghans in a direct and meaningful way. By maintaining a persistent security presence in their communities and transitioning to Afghan control while linking up district chiefs with local shuras and jirgas and bringing in service delivery provided by Afghan officials, the deep reservoir of support the Afghan people have for us will reveal itself. Though this may seem to be an enormous task, its basic elements are fairly straightforward and, if implemented well, will ensure the Taliban has great difficulty returning to power.
The increase in anti-foreigner sentiment among the Afghan population in the last few years is a natural outgrowth of specific grievances that can be addressed and is not part of some inherent tendency of the Afghan people. The surge of violence in the country over the last few years has only served to highlight and reinforce many of these grievances. As more NATO troops arrive in Afghanistan and we shift our presence there to one of persistent population protection, this will create the necessary space for development, reconstruction and governance activities to take place.
As long as we continue to advocate for the interests of the people and empower local officials and community organizations to help the Afghans address their own problems, we will be seen as the necessary foreigners Afghans want. But good governance doesn’t just happen when all of the right conditions are in place; it requires patient advocacy and imagination focused on a strategy of Afghan ownership and empowerment. When it comes to Afghanistan, we must always remember that we liberated their people from an oppressive regime. This has generated such immense good will for us that if we simply adjust how we prosecute the war, the Afghan people will return to their strong support for our presence. If we don’t change our ways, we risk alienating the very people we sought to free and whose support we need if we hope to prevail in Afghanistan. AFJ
Dan Green is a visiting fellow at the Aeneas Group International. He recently completed a tour with the Navy in Afghanistan as the International Security Forces-Afghanistan Joint Command liaison officer to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs. He previously worked in Afghanistan as the State Department political adviser to a provincial reconstruction team in 2005 and 2006. He deployed to Iraq’s Anbar province with the Navy in 2007, where he worked as a tribal and leadership engagement officer. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government or the Aeneas Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.