Afghanistan: The Unfinished Political Reforms

Any persistent and buoyant insurgency, still an entirely apt description of the Taliban rebellion that Canadians are trying to help quell in southern Afghanistan, must necessarily feed off multiple roots, but the multinational counter-insurgency effort is now increasingly focused on what it regards as the dual taproots of the armed resistance.

The first is the rest and re-supply haven that is available to first-tier or hard-line Taliban combatants and leaders across the border in Pakistan. The second is the ongoing supply of young Afghan men available for hire as second-tier Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan .

In a series of recent encounters with international security analysts, UN officials, and Canadian military and foreign affairs officials, key elements of the political agenda they have in mind when they say that success in Afghanistan will not be achieved by military means alone became more clearly focused.

They all now have Pakistan fully in their sights. Intensified public and quiet diplomacy is now underway to persuade Pakistan to address the border problem and thus to take steps to stop the free movement of insurgents and their supplies between the two countries.[i]

Strategists are also focused increasingly on the second-tier Taliban fighters – young men who do much of the movement’s fighting but who are generally thought not to be driven by the movement’s ideology. Instead, they are part of a broad Pashtun community that is sufficiently disaffected with Kabul to be susceptible to the Taliban’s offers of attractive pay envelopes. The main effort to get these young men to decline further service to the Taliban is therefore a second offensive – this one accelerates reconstruction in accessible areas of the south in an effort to win over villagers who now, in the face of Taliban intimidation and the absence of reliable services from the central government in Kabul, are drawn either to neutrality or to supporting the forces that reject the incompetence, corruption, and political exclusiveness widely associated with Kabul.[ii]

B oth strategies – to cut off the Taliban from their haven in Pakistan and from their foot soldiers in Afghanistan – are necessary, but at least some analysts add that success will remain elusive unless these strategies are accompanied by fundamental changes in the make-up and behavior of the Government in Kabul .

To win the cooperation of Pakistan it will be necessary to demonstrate to Islamabad that the Government in Kabul is not a threat to Pakistan ‘s interests. It will be necessary to demonstrate that a stable Afghanistan government will not be dominated by the pro-India Northern Alliance,[iii] but will include the full participation of the south that is historically more in tune with Pakistan. In further recognition of Pakistan’s interests and in further pursuit of Pakistan’s cooperation, Kabul is also asked to accept the current border and adopt a policy of careful neutrality with regard to both India and Pakistan .[iv]

Canadian military officials as well as UN representatives emphasize that reconstruction with tangible and immediate returns to villages in the south – returns that display the benefits of the central government – can be the only source of real evidence of a serious intention to meet local needs and earn loyalty to the new Afghanistan. And it is only a sense of this durable mutual commitment that will finally discourage young southerners from becoming tier 2 Taliban.

At the same time, however, one does not get the sense from these conversations that there is full recognition that the south is indeed fundamentally suspicious of the central government and that the government itself must take overt steps to convince southerners that it is striving to be representative of and sympathetic to the needs and interests of the people of the south.

If current reconstruction efforts are to have the desired political impact – that is, growing support for the government – Kabul will have to demonstrate that it is not in the hands of the traditional adversaries of the people of the south (i.e. that it is not dominated by the Northern Alliance at the expense of the Pashtun). Only then, say other analysts, will southerners be persuaded that short-term benefits will be converted into a long-term commitment to the well-being of the south. If the south continues to view the regime as untrustworthy and not inclusive, loyalty will not be bought with a few projects delivered by Canadian soldiers.

A government in Kabul that earns the durable confidence of the people of the south is essential to produce a political culture that actively discourages defection to the armed resistance of the Taliban. Barnet Rubin of New York University and the Council on Foreign Relations, a pre-eminent American observer of Afghan affairs, even contemplates inviting the Taliban into the political process: “if, as some sources claim, the Taliban are preparing to drop their maximalist demands and give guarantees against the reestablishment of the al Qaeda bases, the Afghan government could discuss their entry into the political system”[v] – a point the advocates of talking to the Taliban have been making for some time.

There are thus two political transformations in Afghanistan that are essential to undercutting the Taliban military threat and to building Pashtun confidence in the government and national institutions anchored in Kabul: a reorganization and re-orientation of the central government to demonstrate that it is not hostile to the interests of Pakistan, and a political process that is inclusive and serious about forming a government that is ultimately regarded by southerners as their own.


[i]Foreign Minister Peter MacKay told the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence (November 22, 2006) that ” President Musharraf’s government can and must do more.” He said that “Canada, along with our allies, continues to encourage Pakistan to step up its efforts to prevent the cross-border movement of insurgents between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Specifically, we requested Pakistan’s efforts to seek out and arrest senior Taliban figures inside their country; improve border security; sign, ratify, and implement key United Nations conventions and resolutions against terrorism; legislate and enforce more robust anti-money laundering laws and counter-narcotics training; and work to prevent the exploitation by insurgents of refugee camps inside Pakistan .” In his January 2007 visit to Pakistan Mr. MacKay offered Canadian assistance to Pakistan , including aerial reconnaissance, training of border guards, and the provision of satellite telephones. [Sadaqat Jan, “Canada doesn’t back Pakistan ‘s land mine plan, MacKay says,” Associated Press, January 9, 2007 (www.theglobeandmail.com).

[ii] Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, “Unterstanding the Taliban and Insurgency in Afghanistan ,” Orbis, Winter 2007, Vol. 51, Issue 1 (The Foreign Policy Research Institute), pp. 71-89.

[iii] The Karzai’s government is linked to India, according to Pakistan, through strong personal and political ties and Pakistan is concerned that a strategic alliance with India will not only undermine Pakistan’s traditional influence in Afghanistan but will give India a foothold from which to further threaten Pakistan. [“Musharraf’s Taliban Problem,” Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations, September 11, 2006 (http://www.cfr.org/publication/11401/musharrafs_taliban_problem.html).

[iv] Barnet Rubin, “Saving Afghanistan ,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007 (http://www.foreignaffairs.org).

[v] Rubin.

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