The elders from Wardak looked at me quizzically. The four of them were meeting an American for the first time. The question I asked them several hours into the very enjoyable dinner was, “whose side are your people on?” I left the question deliberately vague. They could have addressed the election or the wider contest between the Karzai government and Afghan Taliban. The August 2009 poll was a couple weeks away.
The elders were Pashtun, clad in their traditional shalwar khameez and pakol; long beards of black and gray, and sometimes henna; skin wrinkled beyond their years; eyes brown, deep, penetrating, experienced, ever-sensitive to subtle social cues that could mean life or death.
They were searching my face for clues to my intentions. Was this a trap? The whole conversation had been about learning from them. They decided this question was no different.
“We are not on anyone’s side,” one of the elders explained, “Because no one is on our side. The Afghan government robs us, ISAF bombs us, and the Taliban beat us.”
They wanted Karzai to win the election, hoping that he and his people were “full” — that they had taken enough money for themselves and would finally govern for the people. One elder even made a gulping gesture to emphasize the point, bringing all of us to tears in laughter.
Today their area is under Taliban control, and has been so for a couple years. This was not a population cowed by violence and intimidation, but eventually won over by the Taliban’s better attention to local needs and concerns. Sadly, the trend may be growing.
In Iraq, ISIS has taken advantage of marginalization and kleptocratic rule. They advanced rapidly in the Sunni areas. The Iraqi Security Forces collapsed upon rumor of first contact.
Could this be the fate that awaits Afghanistan?
Regardless who finally wins the election, the new Afghan government would do well to examine three lessons from the ISIS crisis.
1. Kleptocacy kills. A kleptocracy is a government organized primarily for the personal enrichment of its officials. Unlike most ideologies that seek to mobilize people behind certain ideas, kleptocracy is all about money.
In places where externally funded and supported alternatives exist, kleptocracies are at high risk of finding themselves in a civil war.
Many Afghan government positions are rented to officials at high prices. To pay the rent and turn a profit, these officials plunder local resources, international aid, and/or their own people. Too often, officials have used unwitting international forces as their bouncers in blood-feuds and vendettas: “pay up or else I will tell the Americans you are Taliban.”
A lot of insurgents were created that way.
According to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Perception Index, Afghanistan has moved from second into a first place tie with North Korea and Somalia. Major judgment errors and ignorance on behalf of international forces and donors in Afghanistan have contributed to the problem. Nonetheless, too many Afghan officials have self-organized the government into a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks money up toward Kabul and then out to banks in Dubai and other Gulf cities. That problem was obvious to the Wardak elders.
Meanwhile, the Taliban, as misogynistic and cruel and tyrannical as they have been and mostly remain, are trying to reform their political program and increase their popular support.
2. Mr. Obama will not bail you out. In a recent press conference about Iraq, President Obama rightly noted that international military forces may keep a lid on an insurgency, but such effects are temporary if the government continues to alienate large sectors of the population.
The U.S. warned Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki that his only route to U.S. support was through serious political reform. The latter was unable or unwilling to address the problem. Now he has completely lost control of Sunni areas of Iraq and the Kurdish areas are gathering support for independence. If Iraq survives, it could be as a rump-Shia-state a third of its former size.
The Afghan Taliban are not looking to secede from Afghanistan, but to regain political power. The last American troops capable of combat advising will leave by the end of 2015, with the remaining Kabul-based ministerial advisors departing by the end of 2016.
Absent major strides in good governance, the U.S. seems unlikely to take post-2014 action unless the Taliban or other group poses a direct threat to U.S. people or begins a campaign of genocide.
3. There’s a perfect storm brewing in 2017. The biggest threat to the Afghan government is not the Taliban, but a political or economic crisis that unravels the government. Even if Afghanistan can successfully resolve the current election crisis, danger looms if core problems are not addressed.
The international community is unlikely to bankroll a kleptocracy engaged in a never ending conflict, while its officials go laughing all the way to the bank. Donor fatigue, already high, is likely to get worse.
Unless the new Afghan government reforms, to include dismantling kleptocracy, and engages in a dignified, responsible, and inclusive peace process, they could find 2017 a potentially fatal year. The risk of crisis heightens if the Taliban and other opposition groups grow stronger, as donors flee and international forces depart.
The crisis in Iraq may be a preview of what is to come in Afghanistan. That outcome need not occur. Afghan political elites must finally put aside personal aggrandizement and aim for the common good.