In his speech last night outlining America’s strategy for the now eight year-old counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, US president Barack Obama boldly stated: “The days of providing a blank cheque are over.” Ensuring there was no ambiguity regarding the precise subject of America’s new no nonsense attitude the President asserted that America would have higher standards of Afghanistan’s national institutions: “We expect those who are ineffective and corrupt to be held accountable.”
Obama then, unilaterally and without condition, authorized the deployment of 30,000 additional American troops to rescue that very same “ineffective” and “corrupt” regime from a growing insurgent force, seeking its curtailment if not dissolution.
This absurd position represents a fundamental problem in every counter-insurgency campaign conducted in a foreign land: the reversal of leverage. While the government of president Hamid Karzai faces the most real and immediate threat it is America and its allies in NATO that feel compelled to adjust to the challenges presented by the insurgency. This inverse relationship persists despite the glaring facts that i) development is bankrolled by Western treasure and ii) security is provided almost solely by NATO troops – two items whose expense Kabul has no incentive to assume responsibility (meaning the bill) for.
In addition as the President mentioned, and even the casual observer will notice, many within all levels of the Afghan government have profited from misappropriation of finances, corruption and in some cases involvement in the drug trade, all of which Hamid Karzai has, at best (and this is being generous) willfully turned a blind eye towards. Ordinary Afghans are not blind to this corruption (they are often pilfered by those that are meant to serve and protect them) nor the fact that what little security and prosperity they have is provided by non-Afghans. Hence, loyalty to the central government is weak and often does not extend far beyond major urban centers where it exists at all.
The Karzai government’s unpopularity should conceivably give NATO greater leverage, however, the reality of the situation is the exact inverse. The Afghan government strengthens its leverage in its relations with the West as its base of support weakens and, in turn, the threat of compromise with or capitulation to the enemy rises. Thus, the West have become and will remain accomplices to the Karzai regime’s crimes maintaining a facade of confidence in its continued existence (the reluctant support shown by Western governments following his outright theft of this year’s election being the most telling example). With no disincentive graft will remain commonplace and the development of effective political institutions (meaning agencies that serve rather than rob and extort Afghans) will continue to be curtailed.
In order for an effective change in leverage to come about the West must reevaluate its goals in Afghanistan and look beyond the narrow self-interest of their own immediate security concerns. Threatening Kabul with a fuzzy withdrawal date, as Obama did in last night’s speech, will not suffice. Should good government be a worthwhile attribute for a stable Afghanistan (I believe it is though its powers may need to be limited), real and responsible alternatives to the existing regime must be encouraged (not installed) and change not feared.