National Security

How to Negotiate Like a Pashtun

A field guide to dealing with the Taliban.

The Taliban spokesman tried to make himself so clear that even the most dimwitted foreigner could understand. "The government has failed to stop drone strikes," he said, after an American attack killed the deputy to the Pakistani Taliban's leader this week, "so we decided to end any talks with the government." The regime in question was the new leadership in Islamabad -- but the message was also intended for the Taliban's ultimate negotiating partner: Washington.

For the past decade, American policy in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) has relied on overwhelming military force and unimaginable sums of money. Even with a peak of 100,000 troops and $100 billion a year, the results have been, at best, underwhelming. Can we do better with only a small fraction of these resources? We'll have to: By the end of 2014, the U.S. military presence could be as small as 3,000 personnel, with the accompanying financial commitment shrinking exponentially. Whether our goal is counterterrorism, promotion of regional stability, or merely an orderly withdrawal of forces, America will soon be playing "Let's Make A Deal." Can we learn the Afghan rules of this game?

We can, and we must, but it's far from certain that we will. Much ink has been spilled on such topics as counterinsurgency doctrine, population protection, and how best to use the pashtunwali code to discredit the Taliban. The end result, however, has generally been a policy geared towards an Afghanistan that exists mainly in our imagination. In that land, friendship can be bought, respect can be seized, and agreements made under duress are binding even after their basic premises have been turned upside-down. This would be a convenient place to conduct a war -- but it isn't Afghanistan.

Fortunately, the rules by which Afghans (and particularly Pashtuns) forge durable pacts may be difficult to master, but they are quite comprehensible. As a cultural anthropologist, I suggest one key guideline to help understand the societal meaning of Afghan negotiation: Every deal is precisely as strong as the relationship on which it is built.

A better appreciation of this concept won't transform intractable problems to easy ones, but it will save policy planners from many unnecessary headaches. It will help differentiate the straightforward deals from the complicated ones, and the complicated from the impossible. And, best of all, it leads to a paradoxically optimistic conclusion: The coming drawdown might actually help the United States form the type of strong relationships that are the foundation-stone of every lasting deal in Afghanistan. An understanding of a few key points can help Americans become better negotiators:

A Pashtun deal is NOT a transaction. Americans view a deal in coldly contractual terms: You give me this, I give you that in return, we shake hands and may never see each other again. Americans buy cars from complete strangers and refinance houses with banks that are bankrupt. This can be done because there is trust in the overall system: rule of law, functioning courts, policemen accountable to the public rather than the local warlord. The system gives Americans the confidence to entrust their credit card numbers to call centers staffed by prison inmates. (You didn't know that? Yes, it's true.) But in Pashtun society, this confidence has never come from the government. The law that matters is pashtunwali: a traditional system that relies on interlocking webs of deep relationships in order to function. Pashtun life is all about multigenerational relationships: I benefit from the reputational seed-corn stored up by my grandfather's grandfather, and if I live my life well, I'll amass enough family honor to feed my grandchildren's grandchildren. To make stronger deals, Americans must learn to forge better relationships.

"A deal is for now, not forever." This saying was relayed to me by the anthropologist Charles Lindholm, who conducted fieldwork among Pashtun of Pakistan's Swat Valley. Every Pashtun deal is merely the memorialization of the status quo at a given time -- if the underlying premises change, the deal itself inevitably changes, too. Every agreement is based on a personal relationship, and every Pashtun relationship is an organic thing. It's like a fragile plant that must be constantly watered, and without careful attention every relationship not based on bloodlines (sometimes even those) will wither and die. As an American official based in southern Afghanistan put it, "A deal is a data point."

The currency that matters is honor. Money is a good thing to have in every society, but for Pashtuns it is useful primarily as a means of increasing one's izzat. This term is often translated as "honor," but a more precise description might be "good name" or "how I am seen by people who matter." A deal that increases the izzat of a tribal elder is more likely to be kept than one which merely makes him look like a foreigner's bought-off stooge. Wali Shaaker, a Pashtun who has served as a translator for NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, explains the concept: "If I break a deal with a foreigner, he may bad-mouth me to far-away people whom I'll never meet." But nearly every Pashtun family has kin who are Taliban -- kin who will talk about these actions for decades to come. If a deal with an American comes into conflict with obligations of blood, Shaaker says, "It's a no-brainer to decide which tie gets broken."

If we can't count on our partners to uphold their deals, why bother with negotiation at all? Many Americans, quite understandably, despair of forging any meaningful agreements in Afghanistan -- particularly with the Taliban, whether at a local or national level. American relationships will almost always be fairly weak, and the drawdown deprives the United States of the only three elements (power, money, and time) that, if used judiciously, might permit durable ties not based on kinship to be forged. The United States can certainly do far more to avoid unnecessarily weakening its relationships (for example, by avoiding needless slights and careless affronts to our partners' izzat), but it will never have the generations-long relationships built up even by widely-disliked outside players, such as Pakistan's ISI. Is the only choice left just to shut up and get out?

Quite the contrary: Odd as it may sound, the thinned-out U.S. position may actually help Americans forge better deals. Overwhelming military power and economic bounty have not permitted prior empires to dominate Pashtun lands for long. Will bigger guns, more advanced technology and richer treasuries secure Pashtun cooperation? Go ask the Soviets or the British, the Mughals or the Safavids. Here are a few causes for optimism about the potential efficacy of a lighter touch:

A smaller footprint may win Americans more friends. Traditional Pashtun society is a bit like a mob-dominated town, with local leaders subtly competing against their rivals to be seen as the godfather of the community. When anyone has a problem that needs fixing, he must plead his case (and owe a debt) to the local patron. For the past decade, ISAF lieutenant colonels have unwittingly seized this role, with the American commander in Kabul playing the part of the capo di tutti capi. Even the 27-year-old captain of an infantry company has far more money in his Commander's Emergency Response Program piggybank (not to mention far more firepower) than the Pashtun elder who had previously been the Big Man in Town. This displaced khan used to be able to demonstrate his status by arming his supporters with Kalashnikovs and donating a dozen goats for sacrifice at Eid. Think he's been happy at his demotion? Think he hasn't been letting his Taliban cousins store IED components in a secret cache within his compound? A smaller U.S. footprint will let this khan resume his role as community patron -- and perhaps deal with Americans on a ground less fraught with humiliation.

More money, more problems. The great Danish ethnographer Fredrik Barth noted that as recently as the middle of the 20th century, Pashtun society was largely cashless. Trade carried the same taint as it did in medieval Europe; taking a salary was equivalent to becoming a servant, and no self-respecting tribal chieftain would demean himself by accepting a government position. Much has changed, but not all: Despite the oceans of cash that have flowed through Afghanistan (and the unquenchable appetite for it displayed by many Pashtuns), there remains a distaste for being seen as a "bought" man. When, as a U.N. official in Kandahar in the 1990s, Thomas Gouttierre sought to forge working relationships with Taliban officials, he found a constant stream of small gifts -- simple gestures of respect, the water that nurtures a growing plant -- far more effective than any large pay-offs. Now, in an era of drastically shrinking budgets, the United States may find that friendship is much less expensive than dominance -- and a better basis for deal-making.

Fewer guns, more glory. A central element of izzat is bravery, and true courage (in Pashtun terms) requires a degree of recklessness. There is no honor in simply possessing more power than a rival. Pashtuns see our Apache gunships, they hear our Hellfire-armed Reaper drones, they don't even sense our F-18 fighter jets until after the bombs have reached their targets -- and they regard all of this as evidence that we haven't got the courage to meet them in a "fair" fight. They believe that one Pashtun is as good a fighter as 10 Americans or Russians -- and perhaps 20 of anybody else. With the drawdown, we may gain a newfound respect. Our military presence will be skewed heavily towards Special Operations Forces and other elite small units. A lot of our action will be more "reckless" than a 100,000-strong force would permit. It's not a prescription any commander would want, but it may help the Pashtuns regard Americans as equals.

Afghans will take the lead. For years now, U.S. rhetoric has emphasized transition to Afghan authorities, training Afghan troops, empowering Afghans to solve their own problems. The reality, however, has never matched the rhetoric. How could it? The sheer scale of our military capabilities and economic resources has made it impossible for Afghans to step into our shoes. But there's a reason that Afghans wear simple chappals rather than polished wing-tips or high-laced combat boots. Without an overshadowing foreign presence, Afghans will once again find their own solutions to their own challenges. American trainers, like their Soviet predecessors, try to teach Afghans how to do things (march in formation, type up a report, conduct surveillance) in a Western way. That's never the only way to do things, and quite often not the way best suited to the local circumstances. When it comes to dealing with the Taliban, Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds -- Tajiks and Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkomen -- tend to understand the Pashtun rules far better than outsiders do.

A Pashtun proverb states: "A man with the power to fight doesn't need to bargain." For more than a decade, power and money have shielded America from the necessity of negotiation. That luxury is over. A decreased U.S. footprint is no guarantee of success, any more than was the past few years' surge of troops and funding. But neither is it a guarantee of failure. The only thing the drawdown assures is greater reliance on deal-making than we've ever had to resort to in the past. The coming months will see a range of new negotiators, from a Green Beret captain buttering up tribal elders in a Musa Qala shura to a business-suited diplomat bargaining with an envoy of Mullah Omar in a Qatar hotel suite. In each case, the American interlocutor will have to learn how Pashtuns build relationships and forge durable agreements. After years of talking past our Afghan friends and foes alike, perhaps we will be forced to learn how to talk to them.


Democracy Lab

Reforming the Democracy Bureaucracy

Washington's democracy promotion community is a mess. Here's how to fix it.

U.S. democracy assistance is in desperate need of reform. From its modest beginnings in the Reagan administration, the idea that outsiders can encourage democratic change overseas has grown into a $3 billion industry encompassing a vast array of programs. But the endeavor has evolved into a giant mess. Scholars and practitioners have argued convincingly that the "democracy bureaucracy" remains uncoordinated, is often counterproductive, contains redundancies, and is "characterized by scant strategic thinking and a cumbersome management system."

Just take Azerbaijan. Since the country achieved independence in 1991, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has dumped more than $55 million into programs to make the country more democratic. Meanwhile, the Aliyev family -- first father Heydar, then son Ilham -- has stayed in power since 1993. The regime has jailed young people for making satirical videos, tightened the rules governing civic organizations, imprisoned hundreds of religious believers branded as "extremists," and failed to hold a single election that met international standards.

But that hasn't kept USAID -- the development organization that distributes more than 80 percent of U.S. democracy dollars -- from trying. From 2007 to 2011, USAID spent $5.6 million attempting to "enhance the overall effectiveness" of the parliament of Azerbaijan. The trouble is that parliament has never been freely elected. Every single member of the legislature is a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. U.S. taxpayers paid for an orientation program to "solidify [the parliament's] own sense of identity" for new members of the Azerbaijani parliament, all of whom were elected in 2010 parliamentary elections that the U.S. Embassy in Baku generously described as "not meet[ing] international standards." The U.S. Embassy also cited an unfair candidate registration process, continued restrictions on freedoms of assembly and expression, and a lack of balanced media coverage during the run-up to the election. During the election itself, U.S. diplomats also spotted ballot box stuffing and other serious violations.

In other words, the U.S. government found fault with the 2010 parliamentary elections -- and then trained the winners. USAID even paid for a new website to make the fake parliament more efficient. A final assessment carried out by two outside experts found that the parliamentary program "did not change how the [parliament of Azerbaijan] functions or how ordinary people in Azerbaijan relate to and understand the parliament." After the orientation for members of parliament, they "may be better prepared to do their jobs, [but] there is little debate in the [parliament of Azerbaijan], indicating that the [Parliamentary Program of Azerbaijan] has not changed the core characteristics of the parliament."

Fifty-five million dollars later, the U.S. remains committed to a failing strategy. In August 2012, USAID issued a $1.5 million call for the Azerbaijan Rights Consortium Project that would "enable key civil society organizations to better respond to President Aliyev's vision" for the country. The idea of U.S. taxpayer dollars going to implement the supposedly democratic "vision" of Azerbaijan's authoritarian president is deeply troubling.

Why, then, does the U.S. government continue to fund misguided programs in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries that display no interest in reform? Why does USAID write seriously of President Aliyev's benign intentions when he has shown minimal respect for the rights of his own citizens? The reason is as banal as it is galling: bureaucratic self-interest, inertia, and the assumption that more is always better. We can end the waste with a strategic approach to programs and an emphasis on triage, allocating more money where there is a greater chance of real change, not just spending wherever there is a mandate and a mechanism to do so.

The current system may be flawed, but there are some remedies in sight. Supporting democrats is an important plank of U.S. influence and national security that can be improved with three reforms.

First, we ought to recognize that models matter. Two main institutional models exist for promoting democracy: field-based and grant-making organizations. Field-based organizations implement programs through field offices staffed by expatriates and locals, while grant-making organizations maintain a headquarters office, but do not support field offices. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is the best-known independent grant-making organization, while most partners of USAID like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) are field-based organizations.

In closed societies, the NED's grant-making approach is superior because it does not require field offices that depend on the ongoing permission of an authoritarian government. An organization with a field office in an authoritarian state like Russia, for example, is more vulnerable to strong-arm tactics than a foreign organization that does not seek to maintain a foreign presence. We saw this first-hand in September 2012, when the Russian government ordered USAID to close all of its programs in the Russian Federation. Consequently, all USAID-funded partners with offices in Russia are closing or are scrambling to shift their Russian operations to neighboring countries.

The NED model also acknowledges that outsiders have a limited role to play in democratic transitions. In marked contrast to the field-based model, the NED's grants are conceptualized, overseen, and implemented by locals; they are driven by the needs and interests of local activists, who know their societies better than any Western development expert. NED program staff who speak relevant local languages frequently visit to monitor the projects. Furthermore, NED's grants tend to be very small (less than $100,000) and are distributed among a wide range of grantees, thereby reducing the risk that funds might be misused.

The independent grant-making approach offers a much smaller financial pipeline than the field-office alternative, but this is a virtue. A small country awash in donor dollars is an invitation to the unscrupulous, as myriad accounts from Afghanistan attest. Societies produce only so many democratic activists, and too many assistance dollars can create an artificial cottage industry. The NED cannot pump as much money into a country as USAID, but that's hardly a bad thing.

The grant-making model of the NED is unique, and it should be bolstered. Congress should increase the National Endowment for Democracy's current annual budget of $104 million by 20 percent over the next 10 years. At the same time, the U.S. government should leave democracy assistance in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan to the NED.

As a second reform, USAID and its field-based partners should only work in countries where a democratic outcome is likely, or in countries clearly undergoing political transition. Practically speaking, USAID should fund democracy programs only in countries that Freedom House ranks as "partly free" according to its annual Freedom in the World index. Thus, the U.S. should curtail current USAID programs in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. None of these countries have real politics, a viable opposition, a vibrant civil society, an independent press, elite interest in reform, or free and fair elections, nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future. These countries make poor investments for scarce democracy dollars.

It's worth noting that other international donors direct their resources more strategically. Even the 10 Eastern European members of the European Union -- once recipients of U.S. assistance and now new donors in their own right -- do not spread their limited democracy dollars thin: they put most of their money into Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine, all countries where change is either underway or feasible. We should follow their example.

Third, democracy is an inherently competitive system, and the democracy bureaucracy identifies competition as central to good governance. Unfortunately, that same value often does not apply in the scramble for allocating democracy dollars. USAID issues multi-million dollar awards without a competitive bidding process for every award, and this has led to stale, cookie-cutter programs that simply keep large democracy organizations afloat. For instance, USAID's Consortium for Elections and Political Processes Strengthening (CEPPS) process circumvents what is normally a competitive application process for program funds. The CEPPS mechanism guarantees NDI, IRI and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems million-dollar awards without real competition.

The fix is simple: All awards should be competitively bid, and non-competitive mechanisms for awarding program funds -- mechanisms that have become all too prevalent in the world of democracy assistance -- should be phased out.

Transparency is a vital aspect of competition. Congress can encourage the democracy bureaucracy to become more transparent. Unlike many USAID implementers, the NED discloses the recipients of its funding, the amount of the grant, and a description of the program. All information -- including detailed budgets, quarterly reports, final reports and evaluations for USAID-funded programs in countries ranked "partly free" or better -- should be publicly available on a single website that Congress, scholars, and citizens can monitor.

Evaluating traditional development programs (such as health assistance or education) is relatively straightforward: You can count the numbers of people who have received immunizations or attended literacy classes. Analyzing the efficacy of democracy promotion efforts is more complicated. Still, it's important to realize that there are a number of tools today for tracking a given society's progress toward democracy, and we should make full use of them in monitoring the effects of programs. The U.S. should not continue to spend $3 billion annually if it cannot demonstrate that its democracy programs are having an impact. In the end, the only real measure of democracy promotion is actual progress toward democracy.

Democracy promotion is a noble endeavor, but it requires more than simply injecting funds into closed societies in the hope that assistance will eventually transform them into robust democracies. Hope and change are fine political catchwords, but they won't suffice if we really aim, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, to "stand...with all those who love freedom and yearn for democracy, wherever they might be."