In a lengthy review essay in Foreign Affairs, Seth Jones, who is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation and the author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan, considers three books recently published by Columbia University Press/Hurst that explore the unique tribal and local nature of Afghan politics.
The three books under discussion are My Life with the Taliban, by Abdul Salam Zaeef; Empires of Mud: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007, by Antonio Giustozzi; and Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, edited by Antonio Giustozzi.
As Jones points out, the books all provide important insights into the Afghan environment, one in which both Zaeef, the former Taliban leader, and Michael Flynn, U.S.
deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, admit that the U.S. and NATO know very little about despite their long involvement in the region. Jones writes,
All three books provide a nuanced micro-level view of the country. More important, they offer a chilling prognosis for those who believe that the solution to stabilizing Afghanistan will come only from the top down — by building strong central government institutions. Although creating a strong centralized state, assuming it ever happens, may help ensure long-term stability, it is not sufficient in Afghanistan. The current top-down state-building and counterinsurgency efforts must take place alongside bottom-up programs, such as reaching out to legitimate local leaders to enlist them in providing security and services at the village and district levels. Otherwise, the Afghan government will lose the war.
All three books shed light on the power of local tribal leaders and warlords in providing stability and security in Afghanistan. For NATO and the United States to have any chance of success securing the support of these local, mostly rural, tribal leaders is crucial. In instances where NATO forces have done so has helped to erode support for the Taliban and thus, not all is hopeless:
In his conclusion to Empires of Mud, Giustozzi writes that a durable peace will likely require a careful combination of top-down institutionalization and bottom-up co-optation of local leaders. Focusing only on the former has failed to help the Afghan population, which continues to feel deeply insecure because of insurgent and criminal activity. Moreover, there has been — and will likely continue to be — an insufficient number of U.S., NATO, and Afghan national forces to protect the local population in rural areas. But that is all right, since many rural Afghans do not want a permanent central government presence in their villages; they want to police their own communities.
Some worry that empowering local leaders may help the Afghan government and the international community achieve short-term goals but will undermine stability in the long run by fragmenting authority. This is an academic debate. Afghan social and cultural realities make it impossible to neglect local leaders, since they hold much of the power today.
The old monarchy’s model is useful for today’s Afghanistan. It combined top-down efforts from the central government in urban areas with bottom-up efforts to engage tribes and other communities in rural areas. The central government has an important role to play. National army and police forces can be critical in crushing revolts, conducting offensive actions against militants, and helping adjudicate tribal disputes when they occur. But the local nature of power in the country makes it virtually impossible to build a strong central government capable of establishing security and delivering services in much of rural Afghanistan — at least over the next several decades. Afghans have successfully adopted this model in the past, and they can do so again today.