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How to Win in Afghanistan: Part 1 -- Reform the Afghan Central Government

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After my latest blog post critiquing the VP debate, I've been inundated with requests to recommend how I think we could achieve "victory" in Afghanistan over the next ten years. For those who still don't know, America signed a treaty with Afghanistan in April that commits us to Afghanistan militarily -- in the form of embedded combat advisers and Special Forces -- for another ten years. I can only hope that the corresponding treaty actually lists out specific goals that we hope to accomplish with our Afghan allies. And not just vague goals like "prevent Afghanistan from being used by terrorists" because it only takes one deranged individual with a weapon to commit an act of terrorism. Instead, we should call a spade a spade and embrace nation building, as that is the only way another decade of involvement will turn out having any true value, given the staggering economic and human cost of the war thus far.

Thus, rather than rehash why we're losing, how we've mismanaged, etc... I'd like to take a moment to discuss ways that we could get it right over the next ten years. Here's my list of three key priorities:

1. Reform the Afghan central government. Power is too centralized and concentrated with the Afghan president. The Afghan government -- and by extension the Afghan state -- has been doomed to failure since the Bonn conference. Indeed, the Afghan government fails at just about every level (corruption has it rotten to the core).

2. Reform how we develop, train, and equip the Afghan Security Forces -- especially the Afghan Police as we've also grossly mishandled our development of the Afghan Police.

3. Establish and strengthen local level governance. 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.

And in getting these three things right over the next 10 years, we may actually learn how to do COIN right should we ever undergo another COIN-esque conflict (i.e. if we're going to COIN, we're going to have to get serious about nation-building).

Fix The Afghan Central Government

The current Afghan government formed under a process known as the Bonn Agreement. The agreement enshrines the majority of government power in the executive branch, with limited real power exercised by the legislative and judicial branches. Framers crafted the agreement in an attempt to balance the influence and aims of competing warlords and traditional powerbrokers with modernists seeking a modern democratic state constructed and governed by the rule of law. In practice, the warlords and Hamid Karzai benefitted the most from this framework as they heavily influence who fills government positions and who actually receives government services. As the largest single employer outside of foreign militaries and their subsidiary contractors, the Afghan government wields tremendous power and influence over its people. Most positions are gained through graft and corruption, rather than through merit -- especially true with leadership and management positions. Citizens often must pay hefty bribes to acquire basic services, such as electricity. As a result, many citizens compete heavily for employment with the Afghan government -- as it's seen as a means to personal enrichment and power gain for one's social or community group. The practice of bribing one's way into positions of power and influence is common and often a necessity -- most managers expect some sort of kickback when granting employment or promotion.

The geopolitical composition of the Afghan state further exacerbates the problems inherent with the extreme concentration of power in the executive branch. Afghanistan is divided into 34 provinces (i.e. "states" in the U.S.) which are each administered or "governed" by a provincial governor. These provinces are divided into districts (i.e. "counties" in the U.S.), which are subsequently administered or "governed" by "district administrators" also referred to as "sub-governors." The Afghan population does not directly elect any of these officials. Instead, President Karzai appoints the provincial governors who in theory serve at his pleasure. At times, President Karzai even appoints (or instructs the provincial governors on who to appoint) some of the district level sub-governors. The result of this system is that almost none of these officials are actually beholden to the constituents they "serve." Their job survival is predicated on doing what is best for their immediate boss, and thus, ultimately, what is best for Karzai. Typically, those who survive do so by embracing the endemic corruption that plagues the Afghan government -- enriching themselves and their superiors in order to either advance to or maintain positions of power.

Ultimately, this system of governance is not sustainable and needs drastic reform. Hopefully the international community will assist -- not dictate -- the Afghan people in reforming their central government to make it more decentralized and responsible to its citizens. In truth, the Afghans themselves will have to best solve this problem as only with their buy-in will any reform be palatable and acceptable to the Afghan people. In essence, the Afghans must own this solution -- they know best to how govern their state, we should stand ready to assist them in doing so. And, along the way, we need to identify the next generation (i.e. post-Karzai) leaders and begin establishing relationships with them.

But reforming the central government is only one solution to a multifaceted problem. The Afghan Security Forces require just as drastic a reformation in order to succeed -- a topic I'll explore in Part 2.