The U.S.'s strongman policy in Afghanistan

by Joanna Nathan

Thursday's New York Times ran this interesting article drawing together material on the U.S. ‘strongman policy' in Afghanistan, specifically Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim -- President Hamid Karzai's vice presidential nominee.

Fahim certainly did "work closely with the Central Intelligence Agency and was rewarded with millions of dollars in cash," but there was no need to rely on unnamed officials. There are first-hand cash amounts in Gary Schroen's book First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan. Of their initial post-September 11 meeting in Panjshir, Schroen states: "I produced the backpack with the $1 million and explained to Fahim that these funds were to assist preparing his military forces for the coming battle... I stressed that other money was available if and when specific needs were identified." After a later discussion: "I pointed to the cardboard box on the chair near the door and said it contained $1.7million."

The re-empowerment of Afghanistan's strongmen -- many so reviled by the population in the 1990s that it meant some initial popular support for the expansion of the Taliban -- WAS the U.S. plan. The intention to keep foreign forces out of harm's way and avoid any messy "nation building." As is stated, it is now widely recognized that this laid the ground for today's culture of impunity. More foreign peacekeepers back then -- when they really would have been peacekeepers -- could have provided neutral space for other players and institutions to take root.

The New York Times article however gives current U.S. involvement too much of a pass. Favoring strongmen often continues to be the policy at the local level -- look at certain U.S. element's support for Uruzgan strongman Matiullah Khan. Various nations all have "their" strongmen, usually in the areas of "their" PRTs and don't want the boat rocked by standing up to them. Large amounts of funds are often directed to such players to buy the (short term) peace, often in the guise of "private security companies."

Allegations against the favored are still ignored. There was resounding silence following a recent investigative story highlighting an alleged paper trail implicating the Ministry of Interior's deputy minister responsible for counternarcotics of involvement in the illegal trade.

It is such issues that lie at the very heart of ongoing debates of counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency. A true counterinsurgency strategy requires tackling the underlying conditions that drive the insurgency -- including the impunity enjoyed by strongmen. The more limited goals being touted in the name of counterterrorism -- focusing on just hunting down al Qaeda -- imply more of the same. Look how far that has gotten Afghanistan.

Joanna Nathan is currently undertaking a mid-career masters at Princeton University. She lived in Kabul from 2003 to 2009 first for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting then as senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. Views expressed are her own.