Decentralization - Not Privatization - is the Heart of Success in Afghanistan
How will we know when we’ve succeeded in Afghanistan?
There will likely never be a surrender of the Taliban and it is unlikely the Taliban can be destroyed.
Nor will the Taliban likely overrun Afghanistan’s major cities as they did in the late 1990s. The current situation is a strategic stalemate that is not likely to end soon. In many ways this is a “for profit” war. The Taliban is in the black regarding the drug trade and the Afghan government does nicely on US and international aid. A near-term peace deal is unlikely.
So, what is success? Afghanistan is no longer a safe sanctuary for international jihadists. Even the Taliban leadership recognizes that outfits like al Qaeda and ISIS represent a foreign threat more serious than NATO forces. That accounts for the first coalition objective in the war. Second, Afghanistan is a functioning - if very imperfect - democracy. As far as I can tell, that was the second original objective. What we have not achieved yet is an Afghan army and air force that can operate independent of American and NATO support. By all reports, the Afghan armed forces are getting better progressively, but until they can operate without US air and logistic support, the job remains incomplete.
This brings us to the proposal made by Erik Prince, the former CEO of Blackwater Security, to privatize the American portion of the war effort. There are areas of modern military operations where contracting makes good sense, but having contractors take over the combat related portions of the Afghan conflict would be counterproductive to the effort to totally “Afghanize” the war as the Afghans might well indefinitely decide to “let John do it” for the most dangerous missions.
There is merit to the Prince proposal in several areas. The areas where the Afghans still fall short are in maintenance and logistics, particularly in the air force. But ground and air delivered logistics are inherently linked in Afghanistan. In the areas most disputed between the Taliban and the government. Most supplies to security forces on the ground, including the police, must be delivered by air due to poor or non-existent road networks.
The use of contractors for training in these areas might well be less expensive and more efficient than using active duty troops, but the way it is done must carefully thought out. Without metrics for measuring progress toward self-sufficiency in all areas, the contracting effort could become yet another proverbial “self-licking ice cream cone” in a forever war with the Afghans never being declared quite ready to take total control. There is a need for rewards for exceeding training time-lines and penalties for falling behind what is written into any contract.
Military improvements, alone, will not lead to a final government victory in the war. This conflict will not have a militarily driven end-state. Insurgencies end in the government’s favor in two ways. Either the insurgents are annihilated, as was the case in Sri Lanka and in the Bar Kochba uprising in ancient Israel, or the government successfully addresses the root causes of the insurgency. The Taliban aren’t going to be eradicated for reasons already mentioned. However, most Afghans - including Pashtuns - reject the more extreme versions of Taliban religious governance.
The insurgency continues to have some support outside hard core Taliban strongholds because the central government simply cannot deliver expected basic governmental services outside main urban areas due to poor transportation and communications networks. Iraq’s government can manage a highly centralized system because it has a relatively mature transportation and communications infrastructure; but even Iraq is challenged in insurgency situations. The key to long term success in Afghanistan is providing good governance at the provincial and local levels, and this can only be accomplished by decentralization.
If Afghanistan could elect provincial and district governors and allocate local resources to them locally, they would become directly accountable to the people. This, in turn, would make the general population feel that they really do have a stake in their government. In a real democracy, some of these locally elected officials might be Taliban. So be it. If they can’t produce, they will be thrown out of office. If people think they have a real say in their government, they have bought into it. It is analogous to a Mongolian Bar-B-Que; it is hard to complain about the food if you prepared the meal.
Perhaps the greatest thing that the American State Department could do for Afghanistan would be to bring members of the legislature and other key government officials to the United States and allow them to see the real impact of state and local governance in action. Showing them the effectiveness of local governance and democracy in places like Alaska and Montana might well convince them that decentralization could work better for them than the present system. Perhaps that would encourage decentralization. Tip O’Neill was right, all politics is local - and so is the heart of most insurgencies.