Let's be honest: What Afghanistan has on its hands isn't an insurgency, it's a civil war.
Two conclusions are inescapable from the fiasco of Afghanistan's presidential elections and the McChrystal assessment: There is no electoral solution to Afghan government's crisis of legitimacy, and there is no military solution to the challenge of the Taliban. And when observing the current Afghan conflict not from the perspective of America's post-9/11 intervention, but from Afghanistan's own quarter-century of warfare, a third conclusion becomes still more apparent: What we confront is not, in fact, an insurgency but rather a civil war -- one whose resolution can only be found in a new decentralized Afghan politics based on the enduring, if ugly, realities of power there, and not through another decade of Western military intervention.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai's main rival from the second round of the elections -- and his own subsequent appointment as president for another term -- it is that the ability of outsiders to influence the existing politics of Afghanistan is now near zero, even when the object of our entreaties is a politician whose very existence has long depended entirely on Western support and funding. Like a patient rising from a hospital bed after a near-death experience only to rob his doctor blind on the way out the door, Karzai has conclusively demonstrated that his utility to Western interests -- as well as to the Afghan people whom he's grossly robbed of a chance for representative government -- is over.
This leaves the West with a stark dilemma. We can proceed to invest a government we ourselves have called fraudulent with an authority that few Afghans are willing to grant it, hoping it will eventually eschew the corrupt behavior that has sustained its power to date. Or we can make the unquestionably more difficult decision and insist, as a condition of our continued support, that a new political compact be put in place.
The reality is that the War of 9/11 against al Qaeda and its backers will not be won -- or lost -- in Afghanistan.
It is time to help Afghans resolve their civil war in the only way that is likely to help, and not further hinder, their search for security and stability. Painful as it is, the time has come to set aside the illusion of Afghan democracy and implement a new federal power-sharing agreement between those Afghans willing and able to provide security and governance in a sustainable manner for the Afghan people. The best chance we have of achieving minimal Afghan objectives at an acceptable cost to the West is by establishing a new Loya Jirga -- drawing on the shrewd diplomacy of the 2001 Bonn Conference and the persistent muscle of the 1995 Dayton Agreement, but looking forward as a New Afghanistan Conference.
This new Loya Jirga would be best jointly convened by Lakhdar Brahimi (on behalf of the United Nations), and Richard Holbrooke (on behalf of the United States). It can be done quietly, or it can be done publicly, but it must be done, and soon. In Brahimi, who led the negotiations at Bonn, this initiative would have a diplomat with unparalleled standing among Afghans actors and the key external actors in the region, including Saudi Arabia. Holbrooke, the architect behind Dayton, would not only bring the full backing of the United States, his involvement would also signal a shift away from a military solution to the politics of peacemaking and send an unmistakable message to Afghans that the days of occupation are numbered. Perhaps most importantly, the new Loya Jirga would ensure that the new politics of Afghanistan will be truly owned and enforced by Afghans, including reconcilable elements of the Taliban, and their neighbors, for whom caring about the nation's fate never will be a matter of choice.
It won't be easy. A Brahimi-Holbrooke convened Loya Jirga solution to the Afghan civil war will demand a compromise with the high ideals of the early intervention; a redrafting of the Afghan Constitution to allow for a decentralized structure of governance; a granting of provincial power to leaders and warlords with less than clean hands; a de facto reduced commitment to human rights and women's rights; a greater involvement of neighbors whose motives are mixed, and not necessarily aligned. While this solution would initially require a substantial troop presence, over time it will place responsibility for security among provincial and tribal leaders and the militias under their command, leading to a steady withdrawal of Western troops.
Despite the challenges of this approach, it's important to recognize that the West's early ambitions have been, in practice, long abandoned, and it's past time to end the callous hypocrisy of promising Afghans a Western-style democratic future we have neither the ability nor the will to deliver.
Instead of trying to end or somehow sublimate deeply held ethnic and tribal loyalties in pursuit of an imagined community of modern Afghan citizenship, we should rather embed the country's future security and governance mechanisms precisely within those allegiances and give each group the incentive and means to defend itself within a broader federal structure. Instead of seeking to impose a demonstrably failed Western construct of government on the Afghan polity, it is time to implement an Afghan peace to end an Afghan civil war.
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