Winning the Battle, Losing the Faith

“The lion of the people will turn on you,” warned Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, a former Taliban foreign minister, as we sipped green tea at his home in Kabul a few weeks ago. He noted that while Americans had been shocked by a series of spectacular insurgent attacks over the summer, the United States-led coalition faced a far greater danger than the resurgent Taliban: growing despair among average Afghans that their government is fundamentally illegitimate.

Every aspect of sound counterinsurgency strategy revolves around bolstering the government’s legitimacy. When ordinary people lose their faith in their government, then they also lose faith in the foreigners who prop it up. The day that happens across Afghanistan is the day we lose the war.

With more than 230 military deaths since January, this year is on track to be the deadliest yet for the coalition in Afghanistan. July alone saw a brazen attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the deaths of nine Americans at a combat outpost in Nuristan and the killing of 10 French soldiers on the outskirts of Kabul. The response has been a growing consensus around sending two to four more combat brigades to Afghanistan — 8,000 to 16,000 troops.

Although larger and more populous than Iraq, Afghanistan has fewer than half the coalition forces, and critical programs to advise the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police operate at one-third to one-half of their authorized strength. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Michael Mullen, told Congress last year, “In Afghanistan we do what we can; in Iraq we do what we must.”

Reduced violence in Iraq will probably free up troops and matériel to do what we must in Afghanistan, but a government viewed by its people as worth fighting for is at least as important as adequate numbers of troops, helicopters and reconnaissance drones.

The timing of two coming events, however, give cause for hope: the American election next month and the Afghan presidential election next year. The new American administration will have greater freedom to pressure the Afghan government, and anyone aspiring to win the Afghan presidency will need to secure the support of the new man in the White House.

One sign of the current government’s unpopularity is that nearly all the prominent Afghans we met on our recent trip hinted at being presidential candidates in 2009. Still, when asked who will win that election, they responded unanimously, “Whichever candidate the United States supports.” Washington should send a message to every candidate that even tacit support depends on a serious commitment on three fronts: combating corruption; decentralizing governance; and negotiating political reconciliation with Taliban members who renounce violence.

First, the Afghan government must confront corruption in its own ranks. Tribal elders in Ghazni told us that they are “slapped on one cheek by the Taliban, and on the other cheek by the government.” They talked of extortion by the police, dysfunctional courts and rampant bribery in government offices. The average Afghan spends one-fifth of his income on bribes. It’s no surprise so many actively or passively support the Taliban.

To fight corruption, President Hamid Karzai should immediately do three things: fire those seen as the most corrupt cabinet ministers, provincial governors and district governors; arrest and prosecute the most notorious warlords from the civil war in the 1990s, who committed unspeakable atrocities but are living openly in Kabul or the provinces; and break the relationship between the government and the country’s largest industry, the poppy trade.

The coalition can assist in these reforms by “embedding” Western civilian experts in law, government and business management at every level of the Afghan government. This can improve performance and transparency. For example, one government worker described to us how a corrupt land deal was reversed because “locals were able to confront the governor together with a coalition representative, which made the issue hard to ignore.”

Second, the Afghan government must rethink its approach to extending central government control throughout the country. Afghanistan’s remote valleys have long sheltered tribesmen with an antibody reaction to outside power. Yet the Afghan Constitution, drafted under close American tutelage, posits a highly centralized government, with the leaders of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces appointed by and beholden to Kabul, rather than to their own people.

Decentralizing power does not necessarily require amending the Constitution, but it does demand that central authorities in Afghanistan focus on providing services of national scope: an army and police force, roads, electricity, a postal service and the like. Actual governance at the district level must stem from traditional tribal, social and religious structures.

Third, the Afghan government must negotiate with Taliban groups that have shown an honest willingness to renounce violence in exchange for a path back into the country’s political life. Most Afghans we spoke with drew a sharp distinction between Afghan Taliban and other groups opposing the government — Al Qaeda, Arab foreign fighters and members of the Pakistani Taliban. They view Afghan Taliban as “sons of Afghanistan” who deserve to be treated differently than their more extreme foreign counterparts.

Afghanistan is a rural, conservative country, and there will inevitably be districts where the people elect local Taliban rule. What’s essential is that these places don’t provide a staging area for a coup against the Kabul government or terrorist plots beyond Afghanistan. Incorporating the unarmed Taliban members into the government would give them something to lose, thus providing Kabul with new leverage over them.

Enhancing the legitimacy of an elected, representative government is the coalition’s central task. With the help of “the lion of the people,” the Afghan government and the coalition can defeat all spoilers in Afghanistan; otherwise, no amount of force will ever be enough to win.

Nathaniel C. Fick, a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and Vikram J. Singh, a former counterinsurgency official at the Defense Department. Both are fellows at the Center for a New American Security.