The protests in Afghanistan over the burning of copies of the Quran confiscated from detainees at Bagram Airfield have led to more than two dozen deaths, and have severely — perhaps even permanently — undermined the United States’ determined efforts to win hearts and minds in the country. The killing of NATO troops by members of Afghanistan’s security forces, or militants in their uniforms, is a dangerous new trend, and one that severely complicates relations between international security forces and their local hosts. It may now be time to consider new strategies by which to achieve U.S. and Western goals in Afghanistan.
Ever since the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001 in retaliation for the 9-11 attacks, the Western alliance in Afghanistan had two broad objectives: to defeat al-Qaeda, and to establish a viable non-Taliban alternative government to ensure that neither al-Qaeda nor the Taliban resumed their prior positions. These objectives remain the foundation for the United States’ base lines for engagement with its adversaries: renouncing violence, breaking ties to al-Qaeda, and accepting the Afghan constitution.
In recent years, the United States has largely pursued a classical counterinsurgency strategy, similar to that employed in the later stages of the Iraq War. This has involved a focus on population security, capacity building, and the eventual transfer of authority to the local government and security forces. The military and civilian surges, efforts to accelerate the recruitment and training of Afghan security forces, and the reintegration of the Taliban, were all essential elements of this strategy.
But Afghanistan has been beset by at least three major challenges that distinguish it from Iraq. First, the Afghan leadership under President Hamid Karzai has as yet failed to establish itself as an effective and popularly mandated government, and it remains unable to provide adequate governance and security on its own. Moreover, given the endemic corruption, the absence of political reform, and the feeble state of the Afghan security forces, there is little hope for meaningful improvements soon. By contrast, at a similar stage in its conflict in 2007 and 2008, Iraq had held successful national legislative elections, thus ensuring that established political parties represented every sectarian group in its legislature and that the government could exercise its authority over a larger proportion of the population. But without the promise of improved governance, Kabul’s demands for greater development assistance and a long-term security guarantee from the United States are beginning to look like a moral hazard. Karzai’s increasing recklessness may well be based on the conviction that his government is too important for the West to let fail.