Beware the Afghan Dependency Paradox

05/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Marjah, the "Government in a Box" is about to deploy. It will be the moment of truth for General McChrystal and Hamid Karzai's battle strategy for Operation Moshtarak. The stakes are higher than simply the success of ISAF's COIN strategy in Marjah, and after Marjah comes Kandahar.

This past week I was lucky enough to attend two events featuring US Special Representative Richard Holbrooke. During the second of these, a public address at the Kennedy School of Government, Amb. Holbrooke spoke of his fear of the possibility of a "dependency trap" in Afghanistan. This is not the first time the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan has touched on this subject. In a 2009 appearance with USAID, Holbrooke noted that his greatest concern was:

"the dependency trap" in which USAID builds schools, clinics, and roads but they are not maintained once turned over to local control. "We can succeed only if the government of Afghanistan succeeds,"

Clear, Hold, and Build -- these are the first 3 stages of the current COIN strategy in Afghanistan. As Operation Moshtarak has shown in Marjah, ISAF forces are getting consistently better at these three things. But they are only the first three steps, and perhaps the least important in terms of grand strategic victory in Afghanistan. Without successful implementation of the fourth step -- Transfer -- clearing, holding, and building will not end the Taliban insurgency.

My fellow bloggers, both at Demagogues and Dictators and over here at the Huffington Post, have done a great job outlining the prevailing skepticism swirling around the details of Operation Moshtarak, and the upcoming battle in Kandahar -- and none of them are critical of the clear, hold, or build phases of the operation. It is that essential fourth phase -- the successful transfer of control from ISAF to Afghan governance -- that is key.

The question is -- after you have cleared, held, and built, to whom is power transferred? General McChrystal has suggested it will be from ISAF/ANSAF control to the unfortunately named "government in a box."

But how will Marjah's Afghan boxed-governance function, and to whom will it report? The American mind flies immediately to the strong central system -- able to absorb local powers into pre-established, functioning, national institutions. But this is not an option in Helmand. The Karzai government doesn't possess the will or ability to expand its reach beyond the Kabul area. Moreover, it lacks the legitimacy and local trust to truly effect any change in the region -- and this will taint any local governance that associates with the Karzai regime. If the national government (anathema in the Afghan context) is unable or unwilling to provide essential services to the populations of cleared areas, then those populations will turn to whatever group can provide a modicum of sustainable governance -- and at the moment that is provided by the Taliban.

The answer? Well, the US State Dept. has been trumpeting the Afghan Government's new Strategy -- that they totally made up all by themselves with no help from anyone at all even a little bit.

It is called "the Sub-National Governance Plan." The highlights? I'll let Derek Hogan, over in Amb. Holbrooke's office tell you all about it:

Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and ISAF will "clear" the districts of insurgents, and the most important service delivery ministries, including Health, Education, Agriculture, Rural Rehabilitation and Development, and Justice, will immediately roll out an integrated package of services to respond to the population's most basic needs.

Wait. Really? That sounds not at all like sub-national governance... it sounds like the national government swooping in and incorporating the captured (or liberated) territory. But Mr. Hogan continues:

Although the Afghan government has historically maintained a limited presence outside of Kabul, the insurgency will continue to gain traction as long as the Afghan population perceives its local authorities as weak, or even predatory. One of the main conclusions of President Obama's strategic assessment of the U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan policy is that we must help make local Afghan government more visible, capable, accountable, and responsive to reduce the "governance" space of the insurgents in politically and economically strategic districts.

Wait. Really?

So which is it? Is the key to ISAF/Afghan COIN strategy the effective incorporation of local authorities with a strong national government, or the creation of strong autonomous local governments untainted by the perceived corruption and illegitimacy of the Karzai administration? Herin lies the problem. The US, and Amb. Holbrooke, cannot have their cake and eat it too.

All roads, it seems, lead to the very dependency trap that Amb. Holbrooke fears.

If the US hopes to create local governments that can (to use General Rupert Smith's term) "fill the space" created between the Afghan people and the Taliban effectively, these governments must be considered legitimate and effective by the people they seek to govern. If these local governments are tied to the Karzai regime, and the Karzai regime's (very limited) legitimacy stems from US financial, logistical, and military support, will the US ever be able to leave Afghanistan without the central government folding, and local Afghan populations seeking governance from the Taliban shadow-governors?

If the local powers are strengthened through support that navigates around the Kabul government, and are granted an autonomy that puts them at odds with the Karzai administration, I think we can safely expect a continuing cycle of violence as local, regional, and national powers vie for agency -- a situation that would require ISAF forces to provide any security, stability, or infrastructure support to each individual regional government-- and never leave.

It is a paradox, and a dangerous one. Supporting either side of the debate creates a system whose legitimacy is predicated on international development aid and logistical support -- and whose security is guaranteed by a NATO supported force.

Is there an answer to this possible dependency paradox? I hope so -- my colleague Maren has provided us with one possible solution here. Unfortunately, legitimacy, unlike power, does not grow out of the barrel of a gun. If we don't want ISAF guns in Afghanistan in a timeless, intractable conflict, a new pathway to the creation of legitimate, efficacious governance that will fill the vacuum left by ISAF's clear, hold, build and transfer strategy needs to be found, and found quickly.