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The Interpreter: Why Afghanistan’s War Defies Solutions

The Peace-Building Paradox

There is a seemingly unresolvable contradiction at the heart of any Afghanistan strategy.

Two conditions are necessary for any agenda: ending the fighting and rebuilding the state, if only incrementally. Peace and governance would reinforce one another, creating space for other goals like rooting out terrorists or halting the exodus of refugees.

But scholars increasingly believe that when a state has failed as utterly as Afghanistan’s, improving either one can end up setting back the other.

Ken Menkhaus, a Davidson College political scientist, documented this dynamic in his study of Somalia, a case that experts often compare to Afghanistan.

Somalis had adapted to their country’s disintegration, he found, by setting up local, informal institutions of their own — often under what might be called warlords. These systems were rife with corruption and injustice, but they produced something like relative peace.

But the more these groups grew, the greater the threat they posed to the central government, whose absence they thrived in. Rebuilding the Somali state became what Professor Menkhaus called “a conflict-producing exercise.”

Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a Columbia University political scientist, said the United States had tried to work both sides of this equation, apparently never realizing that “there’s actually a conflict between those two missions.”

The United States at times aided state building, reasoning that Afghan institutions could impose a more sustainable peace, although more slowly.

But this put the state at odds with local warlords and armed groups who had risen in its absence. Often, this increased conflict and deepened insecurity.

Other times, the United States aided peace building, working through local warlords who could fight the Taliban and impose order, even if just one village at a time.

In the short term, it worked. But in the long term, a 2016 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found, this strategy undermined the government, alienated Afghans and further pushed Afghanistan into a collection of fiefs run by strongmen whose interests cut against American aims.

Even the Afghan government has worked through local militias and warlords whose existence undermines its authority. With no other options, Professor Mukhopadhyay said, “that’s kind of the way the game is played.”

Trapped Among Rivals

Afghanistan is trapped in another paradox. Its location puts it at the mercy of several foreign powers, all of whom would benefit from seeing Afghanistan stabilize but also stand to lose out if another country dominates.

As a result, virtually any viable peace deal is unacceptable to at least one of those players.

Afghanistan’s patrons include some of the world’s tensest geopolitical rivals: Russia and the United States, Pakistan and India, as well as Iran. Each has its favored proxy.

Though none are happy with the status quo, they cannot find a peace deal in which all five come out ahead but none so far ahead as to disadvantage a rival.

The Pakistani generals who lamented the war’s pull on their country, for instance, feared that Indian dominance of Afghanistan would be worse, so they undermined any tribes thought to be aligned with their adversary.

Such distasteful choices have locked American domestic politics in favor of a war that few see as winnable and a strategy that is widely seen as failed.

A deal with the Taliban or unilateral withdrawal, the likeliest alternatives, would require humiliating capitulations or watching idly as the country collapsed further. Either would bring little upside but would guarantee political disaster for the leader who oversaw it.

Partisan politics plays a role. Democrats championed Afghanistan to shield themselves from criticism over opposing the war in Iraq. Voters, who tend to take cues on foreign policy from trusted politicians, read this bipartisan consensus as proof of the war’s necessity.

The burdens are carried mostly by young volunteers, shielding most Americans from the consequences of maintaining a fight that, after years of disappointment, they would rather ignore.

Source: NYT > World

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