Affront in Afghanistan: The Politics of Personality in America’s Longest Conflict

The War in Afghanistan has long bedeviled US policymakers and at the time of this writing has been the longest conflict in Washington’s century-plus of foreign engagement by nearly half a decade. However, the fault that few see and fewer still care to admit in the ongoing stalemate in the South Asian mountains is that the local dynamics have been largely ignored in favor of solutions created by and packaged for Washington’s understanding of the region. The US media has not aided in correcting this error, opting to largely ignore the war in favor of juicier stories closer to home. Indeed, generations have now fought in a war that is as distant from the minds of their countrymen as can be considered possible. However, there are reasons for the stalemate the war has become beyond the stagnation caused by Taliban strength, and those root causes lie not in the 40+% of the country currently in Taliban hands but rather in the halls of power in Kabul the US has sustained.

In Afghan culture, personality is pre-eminent in politics, and successful governance is inseparable from the ability of different factions, each with distinct and hierarchical leadership, to reconcile their differences in favor of achieving common aims. The Taliban is no exception to this reality, as its leaders are Afghans who operate within the same confines and the fact that they are largely affiliated with the Pashtun tribes of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan explains their strength in those regions.

The Bush administration ignored this reality when it imposed Hamid Karzai, an unknown exile from a Pashtun tribe of some note, on the diverse ethnicities that compose modern Afghanistan. Karzai and his family had long kept their distance from the battles that taken together composed much of Afghanistan’s modern history, and the family scion charged with leading the US-supported Kabul government starting in 2002 therefore lacked credibility to speak with authority to the warlords and tribal chiefs whose fiat determined the fate of the new order. Far from being a country composed of urban metropolises governed by elected leaders, Afghanistan has been led in the modern era by dozens of disparate and often-times conflicting tribes and ethnic alliances. In name, there was first a kingdom then a Communist regime, however, the culture of Afghanistan was defined by its tribal and multi-ethnic nature from the beginning, making the imposition of central leadership over the entire country a tall order for even the most crafty of leaders. However, the Bush administration, thrust into a massive conflict in this complicated and multi-faceted South Asian landscape by the September 11th terrorist attacks and with little to no advance preparation, failed to grasp this reality when determining the future central leadership in the void left by the Taliban’s ouster. By selecting a virtual outsider who had not played a notable role in the battles of the previous two decades to lead Afghanistan, the United States made the first of many mistakes that would come to typify the ensuing seventeen years of conflict.

The latest manifestation of the disputes that have hampered the US’ Afghanistan engagement from the beginning is the alliance between various leading warlords and government ministers in opposition to President Ashraf Ghani, who was elected in a bitterly-contested election that tore at the delicate seams of the country’s political scene and whose fiat to this day does not extend much beyond the capital. This alliance of factions nominally claims that it is opposed to mismanagement by the Ghani government, however, the reality is simply that these various actors see gain for themselves and their interests in challenging the status quo. This alliance, which includes Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabanni, poses the most serious threat yet to the US-backed order in Kabul at the same time that the Taliban is regaining power in vast swathes of the country. This unstable situation is accentuated by the tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Karzai’s still-relevant faction and its opponents, and Afghan Chief Executive Officer Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s faction and President Ghani’s. Each of these three disputes risk escalating, and should such escalation occur, the United States would find itself in even deeper difficulty.

The main lesson for the US to learn should it seek to swiftly and honorably change its fortunes in Afghanistan is that it is necessary to first learn the rules of the Afghan political game and then play it, as opposed to operating in a vacuum by throwing manpower and resources into the country without a well-developed strategy. Only by understanding the intricacies of the time-tested Afghan cultural framework in which politics occurs and operating within it can the US pull victory from the jaws of defeat in South Asia.

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