The United States needs to look beyond the latest incident and focus on the broader patterns in U.S. and Afghan relations. It needs to realize that its current strategy is becoming a façade that can only make things worse, and it needs to make a hard choice: Admit that the United States is headed toward an exit strategy or recast current U.S. efforts in cooperation with our allies so that we provide a real transition strategy based on credible goals, credible resources, and doing things the Afghan way.
We need to face the fact that the tragic killing of Afghan civilians by a U.S. solider only highlights the growing problem the United States faces in creating any kind of strategy for Afghanistan that can survive engagement with reality.
Seeing from an Afghan Perspective
We need to begin by understanding the Afghan perspective and the level of the problems we now face. Many educated and urbanized Afghans are grateful and realize the scale of their dependence on the United States. Many other Afghans, however, have little or no understanding of the outside world and are not even aware of 9/11. They see the United States in terms of their own very different cultural and religious values, and they are heavily influenced by insurgent propaganda and conservative clerics and tribal leaders.
The Afghan perspective has little broad sympathy for the Taliban and insurgents, but its view of the United States and our allies is shaped by night raids that kill civilians, air strikes that kill civilians, constant checkpoints and security barriers, detentions, and lower-level clashes and incidents involving International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, contract security forces, and Afghan civilians and forces that are never reported.
It is shaped by failed aid projects and resentment of corruption, which Afghans feel is bred by massive foreign spending and uncontrolled contracts. It is shaped by previous high-profile incidents—the “kill team” platoon that attacked Afghans for sport, the urinating on a Taliban corpse, and the burning of Qur’ans.
More broadly, it shaped at the top of the Afghan government and Afghan society by U.S. deadlines that keep accelerating, the growing feeling that U.S. and allied action is a prelude to largely abandoning Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and steadily sharper cuts in troop levels, aid, and spending. It is shaped by constant criticism of the Afghan record on corruption, narcotics, power brokers, human rights, effective governance, creation of a functioning justice system, and insistence of sovereignty.
Many Afghans in the government fear the United States is using peace talks to cover an exit strategy at their expense—a strategy that many in the north feel will give the Taliban and insurgents control over much of the country. It is also personal: there has been one incident after another where senior and lower-level U.S. officials clash with President Hamid Karzai and lower-ranking Afghan officials over everything from a future strategic framework agreement to a particular corrupt governor or human rights case.
The Afghan Problem from Our Perspective
At the same time, we need to be grimly realistic about the Afghan side, as well, and about the prospect we can somehow suddenly transform it. There are far too many legitimate reasons to criticize Karzai, corrupt officials from ministers and provincial governors on down, and the Afghan power brokers that are today’s replacement for warlords.
Ten years on, the Afghan legislature is a hollow shell, and no one can guarantee the integrity of the presidential election due in 2014. Nepotism and favoritism are the rule, not the exception. So is favoritism by family, ethnicity, and sect, and the latent division of Afghans into the non-Pashtun north and different Pashtun belts in the south and east. Aid efforts may be producing more civil servants and a much greater Afghan capacity to spend, but we have little to show in terms of actual capacity to govern honestly and effectively and expand governance and the justice system in the field and the areas where insurgents are being pushed out at anything like the necessary rate.
There are elements in the Afghan government that are capable of managing and executing the kind of programs called for in current development plans. However, this capacity is far from the minimum requirement needed to take over current programs as most aid teams leave the field and major cuts take place in the military and spending. The current system and spending levels are critically dependent on a vast flood of money from military and aid spending, which the World Bank points out directly funds most Afghan government spending and development and which is so large that it approaches Afghanistan’s domestic GDP.