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Obama, McCain and the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy in Afghanistan

by David Shams
David Shams
Monday 15 September 2008

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editorial assistance by Shane Tasker

Considering the April 28 assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai, and the increase in the number and intensity of the Taliban’s assaults on International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and NATO troops, it is certainly time for the United States to reassess its military strategy in Afghanistan. However, it is equally important to note that in Afghanistan state and society struggle with serious political and economic issues – matters that have largely deprived the Afghans of benefiting from justice, security, and a steady reconstruction pace. Meanwhile, these unresolved challenges have seriously obstructed the international community’s path to victory in the "war on terror."

Institutional corruption, a culture of violence perpetuated by warlords, and the drug trade are among the chief predicaments that the fledgling democracy has been grappling with since the fall of the Taliban. The government’s failure to address these problems effectively has lead to a sense of public distrust toward the state. Subsequently, the state-society relationship, founded on incompetence on the part of the state and disbelief on the part of the public, has severely undermined Afghanistan’s potency in the war against terror.

Therefore, while in the short run, increasing the number of American soldiers seems likely to inflict serious damage to the Taliban’s operations, the adoption of policies useful to the state in addressing the fundamental long-term problems of governance remains critical. It is imperative to maintain a strong focus on helping the Afghans restore a just and peaceful socioeconomic order and establish a stable democratic system devoid of corruption. A society as such not only will be able to defend itself but also could become capable of leading the efforts in uprooting terrorism from its soil.

The manipulation of the young democratic system through a strong operational network between corrupt officials and warlords has increased the dependency of the economy on poppy cultivation and the international community’s ongoing financial support. Afghanistan ranks among the five least developed countries and among states with the most corrupt public administration, while placing first as the largest producer of illegal drugs in the world (1). A country with such an adverse political and economic profile is not likely to withstand the perils of radicalism and terror.

Sharing this opinion, experts on Afghan politics have repeatedly expressed concern regarding the bleak political and economic situation in Afghanistan. For instance, in November 2007, Woodrow Wilson’s school of public and international affairs convened a colloquium, gathering policy makers, academics, and diplomats from the United States, the European Union, and Afghanistan. The participants anonymously concluded that in Afghanistan "government and its legitimacy are undermined by corruption" (2).

The state and the international community would have to focus on resolving this crippling issue in order to ensure the survival of peace and the continuation of democracy (3). The negative perception of the state as a corrupt entity deters the public from supporting its policies and actions. Under such an unfavorable political condition, it seems unreasonable to expect the Afghans to develop the capacity to defeat terrorism any time soon.

Moreover, the drug trade and corruption have caused political instability, benefiting the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s regrouping forces. Studies have confirmed that the enemy uses revenues generated from illegal drug trade to recruit new members and fund its operations (4).

One would anticipate that the presence of 36,000 American soldiers in addition to other ISAF and NATO forces from virtually every developed nation in the world should keep the enemy on the defensive. However, recent events have proven otherwise. One of the deadliest attacks on the American forces occurred in mid-July, during which nine American soldiers lost their lives. This and many other assaults by the Taliban are indications of an increase in the number and severity of their operations aimed at the international forces.

Another disturbing fact is that overall, the monthly number of U.S. and NATO troops killed in Afghanistan exceeded U.S. military deaths in Iraq in May and June (5). These realities show that pulling Afghanistan back into the jaws of radical Islam continues to remain the focus of the Taliban despite NATO’s aggressive military operations.

Recently the Afghan government failed the transparency test miserably, which is a reflection of its authority and efficacy. According to the "Global Corruption Report 2008," released by Transparency International, on a scale of 1 to 10, the state embarrassingly scored 1.8 in its efforts to govern void of corruption, ranking 172 among 180 countries (6). The result of this study is sufficient to realize the severity of official corruption within the Karzai administration.

Poppy production, insecurity, human rights abuses, and a slow pace of reconstruction are among the challenges deeply rooted in public corruption destabilizing Afghanistan on political, social, and economic bases. Thus, it is sensible to expect the next American president to work closely with the Afghan leadership on neutralizing the perils to the authority of the state as well as to the lives and liberties of the public.
Experts on Afghan affairs agree that dysfunctional institutional management has contributed to all of the other ills inflicted upon the Afghan state and society. In a July 27 article in The New York Times, Thomas Schweich, a U.S. senior counter narcotics official, argued that widespread institutional corruption within the Karzai administration in general, and within the law enforcement agencies in particular, is a serious impediment to the United States and the international community’s counter narcotics efforts (7).

Schweich concluded his article by offering a series of suggestions for eradicating drugs and establishing a competent government in Afghanistan. Ending the influence of corrupt politicians within the state’s various organizational structures is the top item on his list of recommendations. His presentation of facts as well as advice on how to combat drug production and trade could prove helpful in formulating policy concerning Afghanistan.

Too eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda threat, be it Senators John McCain or Barack Obama, the next president of the United States could take advantage of his position to help empower the Afghans. The distress caused by economic destitution combined with the rule of a corrupt and largely dysfunctional state could remain a matter of significant concern as grounds for the survival and growth of terrorism and the international drug trade.

The state has not been able to combat two of its formidable internal enemies – corruption and drugs. This has lead to the weakening of its status as a legitimate body in the eyes of the Afghans. Clearly, a weak state with little or no moral authority to attract cooperation and support from its citizens is unlikely to play an operative role in defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Therefore, the Karzai administration is undoubtedly in need of further support from the United States to reform and reorganize its institutions, especially law enforcement agencies and the judicial system. Helping the Afghan state to become functionally effective and to regain the moral authority necessary to rule will help us win the war on terrorism.

In the wake of the Taliban’s recent deadly attacks on NATO forces, the urgency in increasing the number of NATO troops and rethinking military strategy in Afghanistan seems real. Nevertheless, without a simultaneous and equal focus on assisting the Afghans to stabilize their political and economic order, our military efforts and sacrifices in that country could prove futile.
David Shams is the author of Democracy’s Dilemma: The Challenges to State Legitimacy in Afghanistan.


. "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2006: Executive Summary," United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Sept. 2007.
2. "State, Security and Economy in Afghanistan: Current Challenges, Possible Solutions," Princeton University: Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Nov. 2007.
3. "AIHRC’s Recommendations to the Paris Conference," Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Kabul, May 20, 2008.
4. Hayder Mili and Jacob Townsend, "Afghanistan’s Drug Trade and How it Funds Taliban Operations," The Jamestown Foundation: Global Terrorism Analysis, Vol. 5, I. 9 May 10, 2007.
5. "Afghanistan foreign troop deaths in June exceed those in Iraq," CNN, June 21, 2008.
6. Jha K. Lalit, "Afghanistan ranks 172 in corruption index," Pajhwok Afghan News, June 27, 2008.
7. Thomas Schweich, "Is Afghanistan a Narco State?" New York Times, July 27, 2008.

Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, David Shams is a political scientist. He currently resides and teaches in the United States. Contact: davidshams live.com

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