How to Win in Afghanistan: Part 3 -- Out-Govern the Taliban

10/22/2012 01:01 pm ET | Updated Dec 22, 2012

In parts one and two my series on how we can win in Afghanistan over the next ten years I laid out the framework for reforming the Afghan government and adequately training the Afghan Security Forces. The last task -- out-governing the Taliban -- remains the most difficult and important. If we cannot offer the Afghan a credible and more attractive alternative to Taliban rule then we've 100 percent lost the war. Thus, in Part 3, I explore how we must establish and strengthen local level governance. I argue that we should make this the central focus of all our efforts -- financial, personnel, energy, and experts -- over the next ten years. Indeed, the Taliban continues to out-govern the inept Afghan government at nearly every turn (creating "converts" or passive supporters) along the way, further eroding Afghan government influence and/or control over the local population.

Out-Govern The Taliban

Water Usage Rights -- How The Taliban Exerts Influence and Control

Afghanistan is divided up into 34 provinces, which are divided up into 400 districts. Each district on average has several hundred villages. Under the current Afghan constitution, Afghans do not elect their Provincial Governor or their District Sub-Governor. Afghans use traditional community councils - aka "shuras" -- to govern at the lowest level. Shuras usually comprise the eldest male members of surrounding villages. By far, the most important thing they do is settle disputes between conflicted parties and oversee the traditional system of water sharing between villages.

Most villages use a complex irrigation system to farm. For example, villages A, B, and C all live along the same irrigation line that runs down a valley from North to South. Village A is at the northernmost end of the valley, village C is at the southernmost end, and Village B sits in between the two. Generations ago, the elders of villages A, B, and C, got together and formed a water sharing agreement -- Village A could irrigate their crops from 0400 - 1200, Village B could irrigate their crops from 1200 - 2000, and Village C could irrigate their crops from 2000 - 0400. No two villages could irrigate at the same time due to water scarcity. For generations, this water sharing agreement survived intact. Anytime there was a dispute, the villages met in a shura of all their elders, hashed out a compromise (usually a return to the status quo) and had it formally codified by the local district Sub-Governor who reported it to the Provincial Governor who reported it to whatever entity governed Kabul.

Today, Afghanistan is in the midst of a decades long drought that has caused water levels to drop to a point where there isn't enough water for every village to irrigate their fields simultaneously. Thus, these communities continue to use their complex system of water sharing arrangements to distribute the increasingly scarce water.

Many villages obtain their water from streams and rivers that are fed via underground canals, known as Karez. Karez require constant maintenance to function properly. Traditionally, knowledge of the Karez and how to maintain them was passed from father to son. During the Soviet War, however, enough Afghan men died that a core level of institutional knowledge about the Karezs died with them. Simply put, many Afghan men alive today either do not know the Karez exist, what function they play in irrigation, or how to repair them. As a result, many Karez have collapsed and no longer provide water as designed. As a result, many Afghan farmers (most Afghans subsistence farm) lack proper amounts of water to successfully farm.

The combined effects of drought, the lack of societal knowledge regarding the science of drought, and the lack of knowledge about the Karez has resulted in many Afghan villages warring against each other over water usage rights. As in the past, once conflict occurs the villages meet in shura to hash out an agreement. Unlike the past, however, the districts Sub-Governors use massive graft to influence the outcome.

For example, Villages B and C have noticed for months that water levels have increasingly dropped when they go to irrigate their fields. Lacking knowledge of drought or watches (to properly measure what time of day it is), they accuse Village A of irrigating its fields beyond 1200 and thus, violating the water sharing agreement. Village A rebukes their claim. Villages B and C send a scouting party to monitor when Village A irrigates their fields. The party reports that they believe Village A irrigate their fields until at least 1300. Village A claims they only irrigate till 1200, per the agreement. Villages B and C decide to attack Village A, causing a minor skirmish. Realizing that sustained conflicts hurts everyone, the villages meet in shura to resolve the dispute.

They bring in the district Sub-Governor to moderate the council. All parties agree to stop fighting and return to the status-quo water sharing agreement and draw up a contract stating such. Unlike the past, however, the Sub-Governor is doing more than just moderating the meeting. Behind the scenes, he's illicitly negotiating with secret representatives from Villages A, B, and C - with each representative trying their best to buy off the Sub-Governor. Afghan contracts have a mutually assured destruction clause that typically stipulate that if party X violates party Y, party Y will legally own everything the two parties fought over and party X will pay party Y a vast sum of money in damages for violating the agreement. The idea is that neither party will violate the agreement for fear of losing everything to the other side. Traditionally, the District Sub-Governor simply moderated shura and endorsed the resulting contract without influencing the results. Today, however, the Sub-Governor accepts competing bribes from all sides. In this example, Village A ends up bribing the Sub-Governor the most. At the end of shura, the parties draft the contract and sign on to its provisions - leaving only the Sub-Governor to add his signature to make it official. Unknown to Villages B and C, however, the Sub-Governor rewrites the contract to say Village A owns all the rights to the water and can irrigate throughout the entire day. Having secretly changed the contract, the Sub-Governor adds his signature and declares the matter resolved. Village A leaves knowing they legally own all the water rights, whereas villages B and C think the original status quo is once again the law of the land - and this time with a mutually assured destruction clause to keep Village A in line.

Days later, Villages B and C notice the water has rapidly decreased in the canals. They suspect Village A is once again stealing water and send another scouting party to investigate. The party reports Village A continues to use water throughout the day, ignoring the tenets of the sharing agreement. Villages B and C send a war party to attack Village A and, in their minds, legally claim their rights to the water under the proviso of the mutually assured destruction clause. The war party attacks Village A. Village A's elders immediately go to the District Sub-Governor and report the attack. The Sub-Governor sends out the ANP to protect Village A. Village A calls a shura and demands Villages B and C pay them the damages payment as stipulated by the contract. Villages B and C refuse claiming Village A violated the contract by using water past 1200. The Sub-Governor produces the contract and much to the dismay of Villages B and C, informs them that they have violated its tenets and owe Village A massive payments as damages. Villages B and C realize they lost the bribe competition with Village A and have little legal recourse to protect them.

At this point, a representative of the Taliban usually visits Villages B and C and offers them the following deal. The Taliban will come into the valley, they will drive off or kill the Sub-Governor and the ANP who he uses to enforce his will. With them gone, the Taliban will then drag the elders of Village A before the local mullah (religious leader, who everyone agrees is virtuous and beyond corruption) and ask him to mediate a new contract -- one that they assure will return the water usage agreement to the original status quo. All they ask, in return for their services, are a few men from Villages B and C to join their ranks and help fight off the Karzai government (who they point out is the reason Village A now owns all the water) and their American backers.

Villages B and C, lacking another likely way to regain their status quo positions, agree to the Taliban offer. Within a few days, the Sub-Governor has fled the district and most of the ANP are dead or have fled with the Sub-Governor. The Taliban make good on their promise, drag Village A's elders before the local mullah who rules that the original water sharing agreement must return. All parties agree to abide by the mullah's decision and the Taliban leaves a few of its members around to enforce it. Thanks to the corruption of one District Sub-Governor, the Taliban have won the dominant influence and control of another Afghan district. Until the Afghan government can credibly moderate, resolve, and enforce local disputes without corruption, the Taliban will continue to increase their influence and control over the Afghan population.

The lesson learned from the scenario above is that the Afghan system must ultimately come from the Afghans themselves -- not from the coalition and not from some representative (i.e. Karzai's man) from Kabul. The best U.S. institutions to help the Afghans establish this level of local level governance are the U.S. State Department and USAID -- but sadly their activities in Afghanistan pale in funding when compared to the U.S. military. Soldiers are no substitute for diplomats, and right now, our diplomatic efforts and political development of Afghanistan has taken a far backseat to our military operations. That is not to say that the U.S. military won't need to have sufficient fighting power to protect our diplomats and their Afghan allies -- indeed such power will be necessary at first -- but over time, the goal should be to diminish the need for military might as local governance strengthens (and is thus capable of providing basic needs such as dispute resolution and security for its constituents).

Surprisingly we have another ten years to "get it right" in Afghanistan. If we can truly reform the Afghan Government, adequately train the Afghan Security Forces, and effectively out-govern the Taliban than we may just have an actual chance at succeeding in the Afghan war. And, although these three goals aren't the only ones we need to accomplish, I'd argue they're the most important. Yet, if we can't accomplish these three things because we choose to focus our scare resources on shorter term goals or continue to play whack-a-mole with the Taliban, than the next ten years could likely be as bloody and violent as the last decade.