To ‘win’ in Afghanistan

Pashtoon Atif, a former aid worker from Kandahar, is currently studying international relations at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

On Afghanistan’s independence day in August, my friends in Kandahar were puzzled. Why was the government bothering to celebrate the holiday? With 100,000 or so foreign troops occupying our country, how could we consider ourselves independent?

When my American friends and professors ask me if I think the United States should send additional troops to Afghanistan, I tell them yes, but only if the resources are distributed on the condition that the Afghan government cleans up its act. This often causes bewilderment on their part. “But Afghanistan is a sovereign state,” they invariably reply. “How can the United States interfere in Afghanistan’s domestic politics?”

In fact, as my friends noted on “independence” day, Afghanistan is not at this point a sovereign state. Two essential aspects of a sovereign state are holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and maintaining full control of territory. Afghanistan does not meet either of those criteria. It does not have a sufficient, capable force to protect itself against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and to control its territory, which is why the United States and NATO forces have been deployed there for the last eight years. That deployment means those governments have the right -- and even the responsibility -- to hold my government accountable.


We Afghans wonder every day why your officials haven’t done more to coerce reform among our officials. We were pleased when the U.S. finally spoke out against fraud and corruption by supporters of Hamid Karzai in the initial round of balloting in Afghanistan’s presidential election. Exactly what Sen. John Kerry told Karzai is unknown, but it seems likely that he communicated President Obama’s sentiments, telling him that if he refused to accept a runoff election, international support for his government would collapse.

It was a miracle for the Afghan people when Karzai conceded to the runoff. Still, everybody knew that it was pressure from the West that motivated him, not his own desire. And this just reaffirmed for us his status as a puppet of the U.S. government.

Had the Afghan government been able to resolve its internal dispute over the recent election, or had it been able to investigate the killing of scores of civilians by international allies over the last eight years, ordinary Afghans might have been angered by foreign interference. But our government is so corrupt and incapable of providing basic services and protection to its citizens that what we find truly infuriating at this point is the lack of interference. An increasing number of Afghans view the international community as propping up a criminal enterprise disguised as a government, and more people than ever are registering their frustration by joining the Taliban, which can at least be counted on to provide security.

In 2001, most Afghan people looked to the United States not only as a potential mentor but as a model for successful democracy. What we got instead was a free-for-all in which our leaders profited outrageously and unapologetically from a wealth of foreign aid coupled with a dearth of regulations. Now that the result of this formula has crystallized in the form of industrial-scale electoral fraud, many have begun to question the very essence of the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan.

It is understandable in this post-colonial era of multiculturalism and self-determination for the United States to want to avoid the label of “foreign occupying power.” But because the Afghan people already perceive it as such, the United States may as well use that power to benefit Afghans and Americans alike. In defiantly dropping out of the runoff election that was scheduled for Nov. 7, Abdullah Abdullah handed the international community an unforeseen gift: Karzai will have his second term, but not as a credible leader, and so the Obama team gained more leverage than if he had won a second round fair and square.

Obama seized this opportunity by inviting his Afghan partner to open a new chapter by clearing the corruption out of his government. This was a good start, but now the White House must not back down or become distracted.

Obama should send more troops to Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and protect Afghan civilians. However, human and material resources should be distributed based on actions that Karzai takes to clean up his administration. The United States and its allies should produce a catalog of benchmarks aimed at tackling corruption, and make their support of the government contingent on its performance. One benchmark, for example, could be the dismissal of notoriously corrupt officials within Karzai’s administration, which would send a clear signal to the Afghan people that duplicity will not be tolerated.

The U.S. must demand compliance by making the additional troops and foreign aid necessary to defeat the Taliban and build a legitimately sovereign Afghan state conditional on Karzai’s prioritization of accountable governance, protection of civilians and removal of the worst abusers of political power. Otherwise, even 100,000 additional troops won’t help to repair the damage.