Op-Ed

The United States Should Engage More Afghan Actors

Michael E. O’Hanlon

This week’s tragic car bombing in Kabul is the latest reminder of the severe violence and other acute problems that continue to plague Afghanistan. Members of Congress, like all Americans, are understandably anxious about the situation.

Having just returned from Afghanistan, I know why they are concerned. 

But beyond evaluating current strategy in the country, there is another crucial role for Congress — to give the administration new war-fighting tools that it badly needs. This can be seen most clearly by focusing on the key southern city of Kandahar, where a major new effort by NATO and the Afghan government is beginning.

First, some good news: We are making good progress toward the interim goal of creating an Afghan army of 134,000 by the fall, while improving the rigor of training, the adequacy of equipment and the overall quality of the force. Best of all, once basic training is completed, NATO forces now partner with Afghan units in the field in a rigorous apprenticeship program. This effort is also under way with the police — who need the help even more.  

There is other progress, too. While civilian casualties remain too great, NATO forces under Gen. Stanley McChrystal have dramatically reduced the inadvertent killing of innocents. These forces caused about 40 percent of battlefield casualties in 2008, reduced that to 30 percent in 2009 and may have cut it down to the range of 10 percent in 2010 — despite the high-profile mistakes that continue to make headlines.  

In many regions, international personnel, together with Afghan leaders, are trying to compensate for the Afghan government’s weakness by using the traditional shura consultation process, to give all tribes and communities a voice in how development priorities are established and disputes resolved. Evidence is largely anecdotal, but encouraging examples now come from crucial areas such as Kandahar.

Kandahar, however, is also where our strategy needs the most work. The next batch of major U.S. military reinforcements, due in coming weeks, is to deploy to the vicinity of that crucial city — the former headquarters of the Taliban and the place from which the Sept. 11 attacks were planned.  

The military plan looks reasonably good. The basic concept is to use new U.S. forces to establish a strong security zone around neighboring towns and agricultural regions, like the famous Arghandab Valley — stunningly pretty this time of year but a haven for insurgents with its complex terrain. In those areas held by Taliban forces, tough fighting lies ahead.  

Then, with these areas relatively secure, Afghan national police are to establish a ring of security around the city’s edges. Teamed with U.S. Military Police, regular Afghan police will step up use of checkpoints and patrolling in the city itself.  

This last piece is the plan’s weakest part, given the limited capabilities of the Afghan police. But mentoring by American MPs gives it a decent chance of at least some success. 

The real dilemma concerns corruption. At present, we are not only tolerating but actually strengthening a corrupt local political and economic order led by the Sherzai and Wali Karzai syndicates. These two families are far more powerful than the mayor of Kandahar or the overall leader of the Kandahar region, Gov. Tooryalai Wesa.

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The big families resemble the Mafia, with their ability to control economic and political favors throughout the city. And while U.S., Canadian and British forces have plans to help strengthen the governor and mayor and provide them more tools to help their constituents, this process will take time. Time we may not have.

The situation is even worse than it sounds because we are exacerbating the problem with the very military strategy that was designed to help.

Our military logistics and contracting system relies strongly on Afghans’ help — local companies able to truck in supplies, build roads and construct new buildings, for example.

But U.S. procurement and contracting law requires any companies winning such business to comply with onerous paperwork demands and other red tape, creating a paradoxical effect: We keep steering money to the Sherzais and Wali Karzais because, while corrupt, only they have the human infrastructure to fill out forms, maintain contracting requirements and produce rapid results on the ground.

As a result, we risk destroying Kandahar even as we try to save it.

Much of what is happening in Kandahar is the result of tribes that do not share in the region’s wealth. They are growing disgruntled and angry — and providing recruits to the insurgency in response.

Coalition forces in Afghanistan have recognized this conundrum, but they have not yet figured out a common, integrated solution.

They must. They should also ask Congress for help. The supplemental appropriations bill, once passed, should provide American civilian and military officials with leeway to steer contracts to a broader range of indigenous actors.

This would not cut off the big families, but it would allow us to spread the wealth and benefits of our enormous buildup more widely, including previously disenfranchised tribes and smaller companies. Now is the time to try this, while the contracting pie is growing rather than shrinking.

Congress might also write a law mandating that American companies doing business with the U.S. government in Afghanistan attend summits on anti-corruption policies — which McChrystal, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and other key officials could convene in the coming weeks and months. Too many U.S. companies are now content just to make big money in the war — without considering the negative effects of their actions on the Afghan corruption problem.

For the Afghanistan mission is not just a war; it is a complex political undertaking in which the way we strengthen or weaken various Afghan actors can determine their willingness to support their government and stem the violence. We are not being as serious about this softer — but equally crucial — part of the combined operation as we need to be.

There is no time to lose in making amends.

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