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Combating Afghanistan's 'Malign Governance'

Interviewee: Stephen Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 1, 2010

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While attention focuses on the latest U.S.-led offensive around Kandahar (RFE/RL), in southern Afghanistan, even more crucial is the new effort underway to combat deep governance problems in the country, says CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle. "The bigger issue as to whether the war is going to produce a success or not is probably less the securing of the populated areas, as troops become available, and more the question of 'Can we not deal with predatory misgovernance by the government of Afghanistan?'" says Biddle. International efforts to single out high-level corrupt officials backfired, he says, but a new approach to undermining malign actors through reforming lucrative U.S. contracting holds promise. Separately, Biddle says U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to increase the U.S. force level in Afghanistan, while adding a withdrawal date of summer 2011, has caused problems for the U.S. credibility in Afghanistan.

The military news out of Afghanistan these days is that the allied forces have launched Operation Dragon Strike in the Taliban heartland around Kandahar. What are they aiming at in this operation?

There are a couple of purposes. One of the primary ones is they're trying to clear Taliban safe havens around Kandahar city in a way that will reduce the Taliban's ability to infiltrate fighters and bomb-making resources into the city from Pakistan. So they're taking a variety of villages and populated areas around Kandahar city and are trying to reestablish government control over those as a way of controlling entry points into the city itself.

How do you see the overall Afghan situation?

It's important to separate out governance and security. I thought for a long time that although both are necessary for success--you need an improvement in security and you need an improvement in governance--that governance was likely to be the harder of the two. So, on the security front, there are places that had been deeply Taliban-held that are now certainly contested and in some places increasingly government controlled, like the central Helmand River Valley for example. This may happen increasingly over coming weeks and months in previously dangerous parts of Kandahar province where progress has not been as fast as many had hoped. I don't think it's been as fast as former commanding General Stanley McChrystal and his staff was suggesting it would be late last winter or early last spring.

When you conceptualize the governance problem in Afghanistan it is the working of a collection of malign actor networks, rather than as a group of individuals at the top.

But the bigger issue as to whether the war is going to produce a success or not is probably less the securing of the populated areas, as troops become available, and more the question of: "Can we not deal with predatory misgovernance by the government of Afghanistan?" And on that front, there are a variety of initiatives underway that strike me as sensible approaches, but that are in their fairly early stages and are inherently slower moving than some of the approaches we have tried without much success in the past. One of the ways we have tried to deal with governance issues since the Obama administration came into office was by focusing on key individuals, mostly at the top of the system, and trying to get them to change their policies in ways that would reduce the amount of corruption and misgovernance in the country. At first this way done very publicly. That was a mistake because it humiliated President Hamid Karzai before his own voters, [and] caused him mostly to dig in his heals rather than make the concessions we wanted.

So what are we doing now?

What we're doing now is taking an approach that you could call a bit more bottom-up. A useful metaphor for thinking about what I call "the malign governance problem" in Afghanistan is to think of a collection of networks that act as political machines. This is old-fashioned machine politics: patronage networks in which the person at the top uses his influence to affect the behavior of the people down though the network in ways that ultimately disadvantage the population. For this political machine to work for its owners requires "hydraulic pressure" in the machine. And the hydraulic pressure is money. Money is what makes these machines work. A very sizable amount of the money comes from us.

People talk a lot about narcotics in Afghanistan but the narcotics economy in Afghanistan is a smaller contributor to malign misgovernance than the redirection of American contracting money. Because we control that money--it's our money after all--it is within our power to redirect it and stop sending it into networks of malign actors that are actively undermining prospects of success in the war. And it seems to me that when you conceptualize the governance problem in Afghanistan, it is the working of a collection of malign actor networks, rather than as a group of individuals at the top. The way you go after any network--whether it's al-Qaeda in Pakistan or a malign governance network in Kandahar--is you start at the bottom and you work your way up.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

Can you give some examples of what we're talking about?

A typical example would be the workings of logistics contracts in places like Kandahar. The fuel, the water, and the construction materials for the American military is provided by private contractors who provide the material, they provide the transport, and they provide the security. Very rarely do American soldiers escort logistical convoys in Afghanistan. It's normally done by private security contractors who are typically Afghans. These contractors are directed to cronies of the prevailing malign actor network in the province. So, for starters, that provides money that the people at the top of the network can use to buy the loyalty and the behavior of people lower in the system.

Secondly, part of the contracting that goes into security ends up creating what amounts to private armies that malign political actors in those areas can use to enforce their writ and crush opposition among those who are outside the network. If we stop contracting with those people, and send the money to firms that are not aligned with the network, and [we also] stop contracting with private security to escort the convoys and start doing it with the American military, it weakens the ability of all the actors to buy compliance and loyalty from other political actors, and it weakens the private military organizations that they use as enforcers.

Is this actually going on now? Have we changed our strategy?

There's a lot of interest in things like contracting reform. It's the right idea and the right approach and constitutes taking, in a sense, a military strategic approach to the governance problem. The military often talks, when it talks about security, about shaping the battlefield before you introduce large military forces to do a clearance operation. Similarly with respect to governance, before we try and take decisive action against key figures, we need to shape the battlefield first.

President Karzai announced the other day that he appointed this seventy-person commission to look into peacemaking with the Taliban. Is this a real starter or just for show?

I would have preferred fewer troops and more time, rather than more troops and less time, which is the way [Obama] wanted.

I don't think anybody really knows. At the end of the day, we don't know as much as we'd like to about the attitudes and preferences of the people on the other side of the negotiation. The only way that we were going to find out for real whether there is any interest in negotiations on the part of any given Taliban faction is through initial exploratory talks. I suspect--although I don't know any more than anyone else does--that it's probably going to take awhile before the Taliban becomes willing to make concessions that we would need. We'll need to, in part, go further toward improving security in Afghanistan. We also may need to let the drone campaign [in western Pakistan's border areas] continue for a while in its current form. One of the things that the drone campaign does is it creates a negotiating incentive by creating personal risk to the leadership on the Taliban's side.

What is your impression of the book Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward, which talks about the long debate within the administration over the size of the additional forces sent to Afghanistan and the duration of the war?

Let me start with the political issues associated with the July 2011 date. The first point that's worth reemphasizing is exactly what will happen on July 2011, and it hasn't been decided yet. We know that there will be some drawdown, but the only thing that's set in concrete, that we know will happen, is there will be at least one fewer uniformed American in Afghanistan on August 1 than there was on June 1, 2011. Beyond that, it's to be determined. That said, it's very clear that the president believed, and I think rightly, that if he had simply rubber stamped another military request for escalation--remember, he had approved a request from then-commanding General David McKiernan only a few months before for major reinforcements in Afghanistan--the progressive wing of the Democratic Party would have been furious, and he ran the risk of splintering the party. There had to be some sort of compromise, some sort of the modification of the McChrystal request if he was going to keep the Democratic Party together. Now this has led to criticism of the president by some on the right, for example former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who viewed this as craven sacrifice of the national interest to craven political interest. On the contrary, this is a necessary part of doing the job of commander in chief right.

To wage the war, you need resources. Resources and money are granted by the Congress through a political process. Yet, if the Democratic Party had split, and the president had lost the working majority he needed to keep the war funded, the result would have been failure and defeat. It's a necessary and legitimate part of his function as commander in chief to think through the domestic politics of his strategy, and change the strategy if that's what's required to make it fit so it can gain political support at home. Now, something had to be done. I would personally have preferred a different compromise than the one that he settled on. I would have preferred fewer troops and more time, rather than more troops and less time, which is the way he wanted.

With your solution, would you say that you would send twenty thousand in two years?

If the Democratic Party had split, and the president had lost the working majority he needed to keep the war funded, the result would have been failure and defeat.

Any withdrawal date a year or two years out does reinforces this preexisting perception that the United States doesn't have the resolve it needs to make a go of this. And some who advocate withdrawal dates say that that's a good thing because it creates an incentive for them to get their act in gear, and reform their government, and improve their military because if they don't they're going to be left alone. But the trouble is there is another possible implication of a date, which is the conclusion that it's hopeless, that the United States is going to leave before we can possibly do all these things. The result is we need to make some sort of accommodation with the enemy while we still can. And we need to get going while the getting's good because the getting won't be good for very much longer.

Should the president clarify the July 2011 withdrawal?

I don't think any rhetoric at this point is going to make very much difference, to be perfectly honest. It's amazing the amount of objective evidence of American commitment to this war the Afghans are prepared to overlook. We have tripled our troop count in the country; we've increased dramatically our spending in the country. The president has had three successive opportunities to disinvest in Afghanistan, and instead each time he's doubled down. Afghans ignore all of that, and fasten in on this one line in one speech because it reinforces their prior suspicions. The president could stand up in a primetime speech and say, "How could I have been so crazy? We're going to stay forever, honestly you can trust me," and I don't think it would matter at this point. The only thing that can change this perception is when we do not, in fact, bug out in August 2011. When Afghans actually see that the U.S. military is mostly still there, that is the only thing that can change this perception that they'd better hedge their bets, or get while the getting's good, or make accommodations with the enemy, because the United States is a short timer. The only thing that will change that is when we, in fact, are not short timers.

And you're fairly confident that will be the case?

Reading the tea leaves, that's my guess, but we'll see. My position on the war has long been and remains that you can make a defensible case for resourcing the war aggressively, and making a go with it with money, troops, and time, or deciding you're not willing to spend what that takes, and disengaging. Either one of those two are defensible. I come down on the side of the first one, making a go of it, but you can make a credible case that the cost is too high, and you're going to get out. The one thing I hope we don't do is lose slowly and expensively by a medium, tepid commitment to the war, where we try and find some sort of circle-squaring-triangulation-middle ground option that ends up without enough resources, enough commitment to actually produce an outcome that's consistent with our security interests in the war.

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