Discarding An Afghan Opportunity

By Selig S. Harrison
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The British Raj learned the hard way a century ago that the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest and historically dominant ethnic group, will unite to fight a foreign occupation force simply because it is foreign. Applying this lesson to the Afghan crisis today, British generals have been attempting in vain to change a high-profile U.S.-NATO military strategy that is helping the Taliban consolidate Pashtun support in southern Afghanistan.

Bombing and strafing attacks on suspected Taliban hideouts killed at least 4,643 Afghan civilian noncombatants from October 2001 to Oct. 1, 2006, according to an exhaustive study by University of New Hampshire economist Marc W. Herold. The result has been the steady growth of anti-American sentiment focused on the U.S.-backed regime of President Hamid Karzai.

"The cruelty is too much," Karzai declared last month. In tears, Karzai said that the coalition forces are "killing our children. We can't prevent the terrorists from coming from Pakistan, we can't stop the coalition from bombing the terrorists, and our children are dying because of this."

The British model for a new approach to defusing the Taliban insurgency has unfolded recently in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province. Following bitter clashes last summer between British and Taliban forces, the Musa Qala tribal council, acting with British approval and backed by Helmand's governor, Mohammed Daud, negotiated a cease-fire in early September that led to a 15-point peace agreement. The accord provided for an end to the Taliban offensive, the withdrawal of British forces and the creation of a local militia that would replace the ineffectual central government police and army units in the district. After peace prevailed for 35 days, the British pulled out on Oct. 17.

Peace still prevails. Nevertheless, Karzai, under intense U.S. pressure, fired Daud and appointed a new governor who disowned the accord as a sellout to the Taliban.

The British commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan stands by the agreement, but U.S. spokesmen say that his American successor will order British forces to resume fighting in Musa Qala when he takes over shortly.

Attacking the peace deal, U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann declared that "if you have an area that is under the Afghan government flag but is not under the actual authority of the Afghan government, then you are losing in a very big way." Other critics emphasize that Taliban fighters were not disarmed under the agreement.

But the accord has given tribal elders the whip hand over the Taliban in the area and is so popular that many neighboring districts want to emulate it. Why criticize the agreement before the elders' ability to contain Taliban influence could be tested? Is it really "losing in a very big way" if Pashtun leaders make local peace deals that work? Only if "victory" is defined in terms of an unrealistic goal of rapid centralization in a still-feudal society that has never been centralized.

For three centuries the Afghan state has been just barely a state, and ethnic and tribal communities paid obeisance to Kabul only if it accorded them autonomy. The communist regime installed by Moscow in 1978 aroused bitter opposition by attempting to centralize overnight. Now the U.S.-backed Karzai government is making a similar mistake by rushing to create a centralized regime instead of keying the process to the gradual development of a national economic infrastructure.

The central government has a critical role to play in combating the Taliban, but primarily through more effective economic assistance, with less accompanying corruption, not through military intervention that bypasses the tribal structure. The fledgling national police and army have a role in areas where tribal leaders want their help. But they are tainted in the eyes of many Pashtuns by their identification with a Kabul regime dominated by non-Pashtun ethnic rivals.

In 2001 the United States lined up with the Tajik ethnic minority, whose small military force, the Northern Alliance, helped dislodge the Pashtun-based Taliban and has subsequently dominated the Karzai government. Tajik generals and their proxies still control the army as well as key secret police and intelligence agencies hated by the Pashtuns. Karzai, a Pashtun, has attempted to soften Tajik domination with Pashtun appointments to top security jobs, but the real power remains in the hands of a U.S.-backed Tajik clique.

The Taliban is effectively exploiting Pashtun dissatisfaction with Kabul, recruiting many of its fighters from disaffected tribes in the Ghilzai branch of the Pashtuns, who resent the favoritism Karzai has shown to higher-status tribes such as his own Durranis. Mullah Omar, the key Taliban leader, is a Ghilzai.

But there are two other important reasons for the Taliban's growing strength: the support it is getting from Pakistan and Pashtun anger over the civilian casualties resulting from the indiscriminate use of U.S. air power.

To prevent a continued Taliban upsurge, the United States should condition future economic and military aid to Islamabad on meaningful measures to shut down Taliban camps and staging areas on the Pakistani side of the border. At the same time, the Pentagon should shift to a low-profile military strategy in which air attacks are the rare exception and peace initiatives like those of the Musa Qala elders are welcomed.

The writer covered Afghanistan as South Asia bureau chief of The Post and is the author of "Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal." He is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy.

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