The Surge Afghanistan Needs

More local security forces and a better constitution are keys to success.

The Taliban’s synchronized suicide bombings on government buildings in Kabul this week will no doubt intensify President Barack Obama’s desire to bring security to Afghanistan. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama pledged to make the country the centerpiece of his foreign policy, calling for an Iraq-like surge of thousands of troops. Recently, he and Vice-President Joe Biden have also made it clear that they’ve lost patience with President Hamid Karzai’s weak leadership and his toleration of corruption.

But the surge that Afghanistan needs isn’t in U.S. troops, it’s in strengthening governance and Afghan security forces. Without improvements in these areas, no president and no amount of troops can stabilize Afghanistan.

Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, currently in the region, should make it clear to the Afghan people, if necessary through a blunt announcement, that the U.S. prefers Mr. Karzai not seek another term. Mr. Holbrooke should also meet immediately with the Afghan Parliament to discuss what can be done to improve governance, and to discuss possible changes to the disastrous 2004 Afghan constitution.

There are three big structural problems enshrined in that document. First, the 34 provincial governors are not elected, but appointed and removed at will by the president. Second, members of parliament are elected on a provincial rather than on a district basis. And third, provincial councils are elected on a provincial rather than on a district basis and have no official policy role. Another issue is the absence of political parties.

Mr. Karzai’s shuffling of notables from one governorship to another has been reactive, removing governors who either threaten him, criticize him, or are so incompetent that the American military has complained about them. He has swapped some provinces’ governors twice in a year; Ghazni had four in 2008. The current system treats Afghan citizens like subjects, forced to suffer whatever their appointed local despot decides. Is it surprising that most Afghans don’t stand up to the Taliban?

The system of parliamentary elections also disservices Afghans, since some provinces are the size of European countries and vary considerably in terrain, economy and ethnic composition. Under the current electoral system, the top vote-getters represent a province, but may come from only one district of a province, usually the richest and most populous, and from one tribe or ethnic group. (Imagine the members of the House of Representatives from California all hailing from Los Angeles or San Francisco and all being white men.)

Since provincial councils are also elected province-wide, Afghan citizens can’t hold their representative accountable for local conditions, and representatives don’t have ties to specific constituencies. (Imagine the entire New York State Assembly coming from Brooklyn.) Worse, these representatives, despite being closest to the people, serve nothing but an advisory role, and it’s mainly the American military that listens to them at all.

Mr. Karzai lobbied the United Nations hard to discourage the formation of political parties, and he got his wish. This is the major reason why the country is in the laughable situation of having no declared opposition candidates for a (late) presidential election slated for August. Without parties, power aligns along traditional tribal and ethnic lines, and provides ample opportunity for drug gangs and foreign governments to buy politicians. Any Afghan MP will tell you that the Pakistanis, Iranians and Russians buy MPs.

In terms of security, the U.S. must throw additional support behind Afghan security forces, particularly those who fight the insurgency on the most grass-roots level, the Afghan National Police (ANP). We’ve poured a lot of money into the ANP since we took over training from our NATO allies — the current annual budget is around $800 million — but we should be spending more. It’s more effective, and cheaper, than anything we can do with our troops in many areas.

At present, Afghanistan only has a fraction of the number of police it needs. Some 77,000 cops serve a nation of 32 million people, most of them in villages scattered across one of the most mountainous countries in the world. In the east and south, they are under attack from insurgents wielding automatic weapons and planting improvised explosive devices.

This already small force is being eroded by a shocking combat death rate and resulting high attrition. Last year 1,215 out of 77,000 police were slain by insurgents, and an additional 2,600 police were wounded or missing in action. This amounts to one out of 20 cops killed or wounded in 2008.

The numbers are worse when viewed on a local level, because most of the deaths are occurring in a handful of frontline provinces where Afghan police are consequently quitting in droves. Last year, police pay was raised to $180 a month for the lowest-tier job in the most dangerous provinces, but this is still less than private security firms offer for safer work.

With increased American support, the ANP can become a success story like the Afghan National Army. A widely respected institution, the army is modernizing rapidly, with 41 of its 69 battalions “capable of independent planning, execution, and sustainment of counterinsurgency operations,” according to American military trainers. Increasing the size of the army is a good idea. So is paying current soldiers enough so they remain in the army.

The Taliban’s increasing boldness and the incompetent presidency of Hamid Karzai are symptoms of deeper problems: illiteracy, a nonexistent civil society, undeveloped national institutions, and pervasive corruption. Reversing these trends will take years. But within the term of Mr. Obama’s presidency, there’s much that can be done to restore Afghanistan to order.

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