Waiting for Common Sense on Afghanistan


Nearly every day’s news now brings another “fresh approach” to Afghanistan. It’s good that President Obama has decided to send 4,000 additional trainers for the crucial task of shoring up the Afghan National Army rather than dumping combat troops into a situation where more combat isn’t a major part of the answer. But many of the ideas floated by the Obama administration for strengthening Afghan governance show an abysmal lack of common sense and specific knowledge of the country.

This week UPI, citing outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood, reported that the U.S. might be willing to allow a Taliban political party, as long as it respected the Afghan constitution. Responding to the story in an e-mail, policy expert Jeff Bliss commented, “Funny, I don’t remember the Nazis being able to restart their party after World War II.” Indeed. The Taliban didn’t exactly run a multi-party state, and their “ideology” consists of murdering those who don’t live exactly like they do.

Leaving aside its morality, this dumb idea gets the facts on the ground dead wrong. First, the insurgency isn’t primarily ideological, and bringing Taliban-like strictures to Afghanistan wouldn’t end it. The insurgency is first and foremost an intra-Pashtun power struggle. As Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason ably pointed out in the journal Orbis in 2007, Mullah Omar and most of the Taliban leadership are of the Hotaki Ghilzai tribal group. Almost all Taliban are members of the Ghilzai confederation. The Ghilzai and the Durranis–the tribal confederation to which the King and President Hamid Karzai belong–have been bitter rivals for hundreds of years, with the Ghilzais being odd man out for most of that time. Even now, they are poorly represented in Karzai’s cabinet and in governorships in the Pashtun provinces. (A free download of Johnson’s excellent article “Understanding the Taliban and Insurgency in Afghanistan” can be found here.)

Second, fundamentalist Islam is in fact already well-represented in the Afghan Parliament’s lower house–Afghan-American MP Daoud Sultanzoy offers the common estimate that 40% of members fall into this category. There is no need for a Taliban party for Afghans to articulate their conservative ideas or make them into law. Note that Afghanistan is already an Islamic Republic by law, with alcohol prohibited to its citizens.

Third, Ambassador Wood’s comment is yet another example of Americans trying to out-Islam the Muslims, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Case in point: New York University’s own Noah Feldman wanted to saddle the Iraqis with a more Islamic constitution than they wanted.) Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun 58% of the population are far less likely to embrace fundamentalism, or even conservative Islam, than the 42% who are Pashtun.

Many reporters, and almost all American military personnel who visit Afghanistan, spend their time in the Pashtun east and south, because that’s where the fighting is. But most of the country is just another Third World nation emerging from poverty through the usual recipe of vibrant growth, crude untrammeled crony capitalism and a strong work ethic. And most Afghans are interested in spending time with their families and getting rich, not in praying and obsessing over dogma.

Which brings us to the fourth problem with the idea of a revived Taliban party. American policy tends toward catering to, even placating, the lowest common denominator, the most backward Pashtuns. This is not helpful. Afghanistan doesn’t have much in the way of civil society, but the Pashtuns have even less than other groups, because of their obsession with the seclusion of their women. (And yes, of course that goes along with their reputation for “boy-love” on the side.)

In the north, civil society is slowly emerging, and not where Americans would expect, through schools or sports. It’s emerging through weddings. Northern cities and large towns boast numerous “wedding hotels,” often the tallest buildings in town. Some are six stories or higher, glass-covered, with garish though imaginative design. Afghan weddings are huge, because they are the most obvious way to demonstrate power and wealth. But even lower middle class families might have 1,000 guests and pay the expense off for years. Afghan weddings are also, in the northern towns and Kabul, rare opportunities for socializing outside of one’s immediate family.

In the north, some of the wedding hotels have grown into the best hotels in town, offering Dubai-like levels of comfort. Some have become the closest thing locally to country clubs, where well-off families take their kids to walk in the garden, ride their bikes, or use the (male only) pool. Through the wedding hotels, Afghans are learning to amuse themselves and consume in patterns that draw them closer to the rest of the world. The last time I was in Mazar-i-Sharif, in November, I saw an espresso bar at one wedding hotel (and had to show the manager how to use the brand new Italian machine).

Do wedding hotels exist in the Pashtun belt? Not on your life. There, weddings occur only at home. Khost City, with a few hundred thousand people, has several streets of glass-walled six-story buildings, a neighborhood of sprawling, crass, Dubai-style villas, and a teeming bazaar. But it has no wedding hotel and no movie theater, the latter being a more minor center of social life for men in the north. With fewer public amusements and fewer outlets for conspicuous consumption, local bling tends toward building a mosque or madrasah–exactly what we, and they, most need. Just kidding.

On Thursday, an even worse idea than a Taliban political party was leaked to the Guardian. Adding an “alternative chief executive,” perhaps a prime minister, to bypass Karzai’s inefficient and crooked government. The goal is laudable–to make sure Western development money actually makes it to the countryside where most Afghans live. But the method is almost guaranteed to undermine it. I’ve said for years that a big part of the problem with Afghanistan is Karzai, who was more or less a Taliban sympathizer from the start. But replacing him any which way isn’t the solution. The rule of law is the solution. We forgot that in Vietnam when we allowed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem to be killed. Nothing good happened after that.

The Afghans are about to have presidential elections. The U.S. would do better to urge Karzai not to run, than to introduce someone else by fiat. And one of the cheapest, easiest fixes would be providing the money for another constitutional convention to amend the flawed constitution–one that allows for direct election of governors and sub governors, and gives executive power to provincial councils. These are solutions that have occurred to many people who’ve worked in Afghanistan. It does not take any genius to see them, only a reasonable amount of intellectual curiosity and the diligence to get around a bit. When will common sense come to American policy in Afghanistan?

Comments are closed.