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Arab Spring's Lessons for Afghanistan

Ann Marlowe

President Obama will speak today on new US policy toward the Muslim world in the wake of the Arab Spring. Let’s hope our nation’s Afghan strategists also note the big lesson of the Arab revolts — namely, that centralizing and concentrating power in undeveloped states increases their volatility, not their stability.

For decades, the United States opted against seeking to nurture robust civil societies and political dialogue in the Middle East — and we took the same approach in Afghanistan after 2001. Instead, we simply tried to identify and ally with “the right men.” But a key lesson of the Arab Spring is that massive, unmonitored aid to governments with undeveloped tribal cultures and no rule of law will produce — at best — horrendous corruption and public rage.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has become a monster — but we helped make him that. Many Afghan provincial governors are versions in miniature.

Small wonder that even an alternative that promises so little — the Taliban — appeals to many Afghan Pashtuns. In 2010, Afghan insurgents planted 14,661 IEDs, a 62 percent rise over 2009’s 7,228, which in turn was up 120 percent over 2008’s figure.

This suggests that the insurgency enjoys passive support: If you know your neighbors will report you or hate you for planting IEDs, you don’t do it, especially in a group society like this one. But the corrupt Afghan state — a product in good part of vast US aid — has left many ordinary Afghans at least willing to tolerate neighbors who support the insurgency.

We simply turned on the aid spigots in Kabul and looked the other way — as our taxpayers’ money nurtured a government culture of waste and dependency.

In the capital of Helmand province a few days ago, I saw a handful of men in the government “media center” who have little to do besides spend time on Facebook. (At least the Brits are paying for this, not us.) The governor’s chief of staff supervises 23 people, including two who just schedule meetings. Meanwhile, we’ve been paying Afghans to clean out their own irrigation canals — something they did unpaid for hundreds of years.

It’s tempting to blame Pakistan for the Afghan insurgency. And Pakistan’s support and safe haven for the insurgents is a big problem — but it’s notwhythe insurgents are fighting.

The war is being fought in the insular Pashtun belt, areas not used to strangers — much less strangers who search their houses and cars. Yet the troops and cops of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are mainly northern and Dari-speaking — and so seen as irritating outsiders almost as much as we are.

In Zabul province, I found that 80 percent of the ANP didn’t even speak the local language, Pashtu — not great for community relations.

Under these circumstances, the bigger we make the ANA and ANP — and we’re spending $12 billion a year on them — the more insurgents enter the field to fight them.

So the current plan to grow the ANA and ANP to around a quarter million each is unwise. Those figures are larger than the army and gendarmarie of France, which is three times the size of Afghanistan (and self-financing, as Afghanistan is not). Armed strangers in such numbers will produce little besides more attacks.

It’s also true that the more American troops we send to Afghanistan, the more insurgents show up to fight them. If we cut our troop numbers, as President Obama has planned, we will see levels of violence fall. Let the Afghan Army step up to the plate. If they won’t fight for their country by now, they’re not going to fight in 2014, 2015, 2020, or 2050.

Finally, it’s way past time for Karzai to go. Replace him with a council or shura chosen by the current, elected Parliament who will guide the country.

An imperfect group of not very powerful Afghans with not very much money will do a much better job than one all-powerful, imperfect Afghan backed by unlimited American money.

The bigger we make the stakes — the centralized state with access to foreign money — the more corrupt Afghanistan will become. And the more corrupt Afghanistan’s government, the more passive and active support the insurgency will gather in the Pashtun belt.

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