David Benson is a Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the United States Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), part of Air University in Montgomery, Alabama. His area of focus includes online politics and international relations. He can be found on Twitter @davidcbenson. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: The United States is attempting to broker peace in Afghanistan allowing it to remove troops, leaving behind a stable country unlikely to be used to stage transnational terror attacks.
Date Originally Written: August 23, 2017.
Date Originally Published: September 25, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article provides a neutral assessment of two possible courses of action available to the U.S. and Afghan Governments.
Background: Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic, religious and linguist state. Nicknamed “the graveyard of empires,” the disparate nature of the country has prevented both foreign empires and domestic leaders from consolidating control in the country. The most successful domestic leaders have used Afghanistan’s rough terrain and complicated ethnography to retain independence, while playing larger states off each other to the country’s advantage.
The U.S. and its allies have been conducting military operations in Afghanistan for 16 years. In that time, the coalition of opposition known as the Taliban has gone from control of an estimated 90% of the country, down to a small fraction, and now controls approximately 50% of the country. At the time of the U.S.-led invasion, the Taliban was a pseudo-governmental organization capable of fielding a military that used modern tactics, but since than has devolved into a less hierarchical network, and in some ways is better thought of as a coalition of anti-government forces. Although officially a religious organization, the Taliban has historically drawn its greatest support from among the Pashto majority in the country. The current Afghan government is at Kabul and has supporters amongst every ethnic group, but has never controlled much territory outside of Kabul.
Following the collapse of the Taliban the U.S.-sponsored government installed a constitution which established a strong central government. Although the constitution recognizes the various minority groups, and provides protections for minority communities, it reserves most authority for the central government. For example, though the government recognizes 14 ethnic groups and as many as 5 language families as part of Afghanistan, it still calls for a single centrally developed educational curriculum. The president even appoints regional governors.
Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his key advisors have raised the possibility of a negotiated solution in Afghanistan. Such a negotiation would necessarily include the Taliban, and Taliban associated groups. Insofar as the ongoing conflict is between the central government and those opposed to the central government, a natural accommodation could include a change in the government structure.
Significance: Afghanistan was the base of operation for the terrorist organization al-Qa’ida, and where the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were planned. The importance of the September 11th attacks in the U.S. and international consciousness cannot be overstated. The perceived threat of international terrorism is so great that if Afghanistan is not stable enough to prevent transnational terror attacks from originating there, regional and global powers will be constantly tempted to return. Afghanistan is also a potential arena for competition between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan. India seeks an ally that can divide Pakistan’s attention away from India and the Jammu and Kashmir, while Pakistan wants to avoid encirclement.
Option #1: Do not change the constitution of Afghanistan which would continue to centralize authority with the government in Kabul.
Risk: The conflict never ends. The Afghan constitution provides for a far more centralized government than any western democracy, and yet Afghanistan is more heterogeneous than any of those countries. Ongoing populist revolts against elite leadership personified by Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of President Trump demonstrate the desire for local control even in stable democracies. Combined with Afghanistan’s nearly 40 year history of war, such desires for local control that are currently replicated across the globe could easily perpetuate violence in the country. Imagine the local popular outrage in the U.S. when Barack Obama and Donald Trump were elected if the President also appointed the governors of every state, and dictated the curriculum in every school.
A second-order risk is heightened tension between India and Pakistan. So long as Afghanistan is internally fractured, it is a source of conflict between India and Pakistan. If Pakistan is able and willing to continue to foment the Taliban to thwart India’s outreach into the country, then this raises the possibility of escalation between the two nuclear countries.
Gain: Afghanistan externally looks more like other states, at least on paper. The Taliban and other terror groups are in violation of local and international law, and there is a place in Kabul for the U.S. and others to press their claims. The advantage of the constitution as it now stands is that there is a single point of institutional control. If the president controls the governors, and the governors control their provinces, then Afghanistan is a more easily manageable problem internationally, if not domestically.
Option #2: Change the constitution of Afghanistan decentralizing some governing authority.
Risk: Once the Afghan constitution is on the table for negotiation, then there is no telling what might happen. The entire country could be carved up into essentially independent territories, with the national state of Afghanistan dissolving into a diplomatic fiction. Although this would essentially replicate de jure what is de facto true on the ground, it could legitimize actors and outcomes that are extremely deleterious for international peace. At worst, it might allow bad actors legal protection to develop power bases in regions of the country they control without any legal recourse for other countries.
Gain: A negotiated solution with the Taliban is much more likely to succeed. Some Taliban members may not give up their arms in exchange for more autonomy, and perhaps even a legal seat at the table, but not all people fighting for the Taliban are “true believers.” The incentives for people who just want more local control, or official recognition of the control they already exercise, change with a constitution that cedes control from the central government. Ideally the constitution would replicate to some degree the internal autonomy with external unity created in the 20th under the monarchy.
Other Comments: War, even civil war, is always a political problem. As such, a political solution may be more practical than a military one. While changes can be applied to force structure, rules of engagement and strategy, until all involved are willing and able to change the politics of the situation, failure is imminent.