The Impossible Afghan State

When we asked here earlier this month whether the Western coalition can win in Afghanistan, the findings were ambivalent at best: while the United States could not appear to be scuttling from the country, President Barack Obama did announce a date for troop withdrawal to commence. Throughout his campaign, the president stressed the importance of winning the war in Afghanistan for he knew that this was the place where the War on Terror was really being waged. By including Pakistan in his administration’s approach to the war while putting more soldiers on the ground at the same time, Obama presented the most forward-looking strategy to bringing the war to an end yet.

As Scott Atran notes in The New York Times however, committing more troops to a counterinsurgency effort aimed against a good segment of the Afghan population, with the focus on converting a deeply unpopular and corrupt regime into a unified, centralized state for the first time in that country’s history, is far from a slam dunk.

The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure.

What’s helping the Taliban gain momentum is the moral outrage of the Pashtun tribes against everyone who denies them autonomy. They want the right to bear arms to defend their tribal code which rather goes against the intentions of the Karzai Goverment in Kabul. Many Pakistani Pashtuns, too, regard the Western involvement as an invasion and a danger to their century-old sovereignty. Such bias is only gleefully invigorated by Taliban propaganda which claims that the United States intend to occupy Afghanistan indefinitely.

American-sponsored “reconciliation” efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban may be fatally flawed if they include demands that Pashtun hill tribes give up their arms and support a constitution that values Western-inspired rights and judicial institutions over traditions that have sustained the tribes against all enemies.

As Thomas Barnett sees it, nation building that seeks to subsume the Pashtuns within a larger Afghanistan “is doomed to fail.” The solution? Create something of a autonomous “Pashtunistan” with borders “running within both Pakistan and Afghanistan and with those two states acknowledging a soft border between them.” Not exactly how we like to think of nations and states here in the West but an option that might just work for a country that has hardly ever been ruled in its entirety from one place by one government.