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A New Approach to Afghanistan
The stalemated conflict in Afghanistan is becoming a forever war because it is a “for profit’ enterprise for powerful interests on both Afghan sides of the war. Many senior leaders of the Afghan government, as well as the Taliban, are profiting daily from the conflict - why would they want to participate in a peace process that would kill their cash cow? This does not mean that the US government should withdraw from the war - which is as worth fighting today as it was in 2001. We cannot allow Afghanistan to again become a sanctuary for international jihadists. The Taliban is not an existential threat to America and the West, but groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS are. It is in America’s interest for both the Afghan government and the Taliban to resist international jihadist infiltration. That means that American economic strategy needs to be radically changed if we expect to get both sides to the peace table for serious negotiations.
To approach a solution, we must first understand the problem. Regarding the Afghan government, we need to realize that every dollar provided by the United States to pay Afghan government officials, soldiers, police, and subcontractors has a portion siphoned off at every level from the ministries in Kabul down to the battalion or district level. This type of corruption is ingrained in the cultures of the region, and no amount of lecturing on the part of American officials is going to eliminate the institutional tradition of backsheesh. Our unfiltered largesse is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The Taliban’s war effort is funded primarily by illegal drugs. On paper, the Taliban movement is a fundamentalist Muslim movement that eschews alcohol and drugs. Through a convoluted logic of self- interest, the leaders of the movement can justify selling drugs to infidels and apostates if it will further the greater cause of their jihad against foreigners and ‘apostate’ government officials who oppose their jihad. The fact that many of their own warriors have become addicted to opium is either ignored or accepted as collateral damage in a good war. Frankly, some powerful Taliban factions such as the Haqqani network have become independent criminal cartels. Because of all of the above, there are powerful interests on both sides of the conflict that have no interest in ending it.
So, what can be done? In the case of the Afghan government a radical “tough love’ reform of our economic approach is needed. In the case of the Taliban, we need to convince the Afghan government that it needs to take the profit motive out of poppy production and exploitation.
From a government perspective, we need to eliminate direct cash payments to various government ministries and substitute a chit system that directly pays the entities doing the work while eliminating the graft that skims off American funding at every level between the ministerial level and the individuals carrying guns, doing work, or providing government services. These chits would be exchanged for hard currency or deposited in Afghan banks. Today, in too many cases, we are paying for ghost soldiers and government employees. Consequently, those individuals who indeed exist are being underpaid due to graft. In the case of subcontractors, many are being paid for services not rendered or in a suboptimal manner. High and mid-level officials are getting rich by undermining the war effort.
Such a reform would necessarily mean an increase in the American civilian footprint as it would call for Americans to hand out chits for cash collection at banks and to individual soldiers, police officers, civilian officials, and contractors. However, it would insure that the people being paid are alive and on the job. Perhaps this could be done by an expansion of the role and size of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). To date, SIGAR’s role has been as an inspector and its recommendations have led to very little positive change. In its July 2018 report, SIGAR admitted that poppy eradication is not doable while the war is going on. This proposed reform would give SIGAR an active role in reducing the corruption that it has been reporting on for years. Would this approach be something of an infringement on Afghan sovereignty? It would be, but since we are paying for the war, we should have a greater say on how the money is spent. Consequently, a tough love approach is in order.
Regarding the Taliban, the solution is simpler. We should strongly encourage the Afghan government to decriminalize poppy production for the duration of the war. When a drug becomes legal, profits go down. Consequently, this approach would drive down the obscene profit rate the Taliban is making from opium and would free up the soldiers and police currently engaged in the Sisyphean task of poppy eradication to fight the war. It would also encourage farmers to grow productive crops which would assist the legal economy.
The United States could force this issue by cutting off the funds for poppy eradication. Absent that American funding, there is no enforcement program. I spent the better part of a year watching the Afghan eradication program in the district that I advised. It was ineffective, created Taliban sympathizers, and encouraged police and army corruption - only the Taliban benefitted. The United States cannot control the drug industry within its own borders, so it is unrealistic to expect the Afghans to do it in the middle of an insurgency. I am always reluctant to tolerate any kind of drug dealing, but Afghanistan cannot afford to wage a war on drugs and a war on the Taliban at the same time. This is particularly true when the profits from a trade that can’t be controlled go directly into the enemy’s coffers. Better to eliminate the opportunity for enormous profits through temporary legalization.
With the war at a stalemate, we need to seriously consider new thinking outside the kinetic realm if we expect to move the ball forward toward peace without a Taliban victory.