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Why Afghanistan’s War Defies Solutions – The New York Times

pictures –Boys in Kabul, the Afghan capital, last year. Afghanistan’s combination of state collapse, civil conflict, ethnic disintegration and multisided intervention has locked it in a self-perpetuating cycle that may be beyond outside resolution. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

nytimes.com – Why Afghanistan’s War Defies Solutions – By

The generals publicly supported their intervention in Afghanistan, but in private they worried they were trapped. After 16 years, they feared they had produced “a recipe for endless war,” according to an American ambassador who met with them. But the generals, the ambassador said, “felt there was no alternative, no realistic alternative” than to continue fighting a doomed mission.

Those generals were Pakistani. Their meetings with the ambassador, Tom Simons, took place in 1996. Mr. Simons recounted the experience to the journalist Steve Coll in 2002, one year into an American mission in Afghanistan that has now also lasted 16, and which President Trump announced on Monday that his administration would extend.

There is a reason that Afghanistan’s conflict, then and now, so defies solutions.

Its combination of state collapse, civil conflict, ethnic disintegration and multisided intervention has locked it in a self-perpetuating cycle that may be simply beyond outside resolution.

“I’m not saying that state formation will never work in Afghanistan, but externally building, as we’re trying to do it, cannot work,” said Romain Malejacq, a political scientist at the Center for International Conflict Analysis and Management in the Netherlands.

American-led efforts, despite some successes, have ended up reinforcing and accelerating the broader cycles of violence and fragmentation that have been growing since the state’s collapse in the early 1990s.

“The more we go on, the more fragmented it gets,” Professor Malejacq said. “I’m getting more and more pessimistic. I don’t really know how Afghanistan is going to get out of it, to be truly honest.”

 American soldiers in a village about 90 miles northeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2006. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

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.

Ethnic Hazaras during a funeral for victims of a suicide bombing last year in Kabul. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Self-Deepening Divisions

Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity, though once stable, has provided another set of fault lines along which the country has atomized.

The war did not begin as an ethnic conflict. But, amid collapse, communities naturally coalesced around local ethnic groups. As they fought for control, their divisions hardened — a self-reinforcing cycle that has deepened violence and created barriers to peace.

When ethnic groups feel vulnerable or targeted because of their ethnicity, researchers have found, identity becomes stronger and other groups distrusted.

“There’s a vicious cycle,” Professor Malejacq said. “Eventually, the conflict keeps on going, these fractures become more salient.”

A stable peace agreement would almost certainly need to incorporate the Taliban, for instance. But such an agreement would, at this point, be rejected by most of the northern population, Professor Malejacq believes, who see the Taliban as a danger to non-Pashtuns.

Stronger group identity also undermines the authority and effectiveness of American-led forces. As foreigners, they are perpetual outsiders, which puts them at a perpetual disadvantage, research by Jason Lyall of Yale University, Graeme Blair of U.C.L.A. and Kosuke Imai of Princeton University has found.

When American-led forces harm civilians, they found, support for the Taliban increases. But when the Taliban harm civilians, little changes in civilian attitudes. This, they argue, is because of biases in favor of the familiar Taliban over unfamiliar foreigners.

As the conflict wears on and civilians are inevitably caught in the crossfire, those biases tilt locals more strongly against the foreigners, further dooming outside efforts at imposing peace.

Years and Centuries

Asked for successes relevant to Afghanistan, Professor Mukhopadhyay said research on state-building often focuses on medieval Europe.

Today’s Afghanistan is vastly different from that era, but the comparison is a testament to the scale of the task. Europe’s states were built over centuries, a feat the United States is trying to compress into a few short years.

Rebuilding Afghanistan, she said, would take far more than the handful of years sought by American planners, and policy makers ought to think “generationally.”

Professor Malejacq, asked for comparable cases, focused on Liberia. But that country only stalled its collapse when Charles Taylor, a brutal warlord, consolidated power. It plunged into a second civil war before achieving more long-term stability. Decades later, it remains deeply troubled.

Afghanistan, Professor Malejacq said, has so disintegrated that the Taliban, Mr. Taylor’s closest analogue there, may not be up to the task.

“I don’t think they would be strong enough to take control over the entire country,” he said.

Different Day, Different Audience, and a Completely Different Trump

Sorgente: Why Afghanistan’s War Defies Solutions – The New York Times

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