Send Warlords, Guns and Money
For a really excellent facts-on-the-ground view of Afghanistan, don’t miss defense wonk Nick Dowling’s series of posts at Small Wars Journal. Take a look at his trip through Nangahar, the province run by warlord Gul Agha Shirzai:
Sherzai is practically a caricature of the Afghan warlord: a former Muj against the Russians, he combines ruthlessness with Machiavellian political skills and a convenient comfort with corruption or worse. He would be easy to dislike if not for the fact that he keeps Nangarhar safe and increasingly prosperous while staunchly pro-American. The visible focused police presence I saw in downtown Jalalabad is indicative of how Sherzai has tamed the province and increased capacity along many dimensions. Fertile lands and an increasing role as a regional economic hub have spurred ideas of what reliable power, further irrigation, and an airport could yield in turning Jalalabad’s agricultural wealth into a valuable export.
All that still seems pretty easy to dislike! As Dowling writes, Shirzai basically robs the citizens of Nangahar, collecting a tariff at a border crossing into Pakistan and placing it into his personal “fund.” Reconstruction and development work is funded through U.S. and international contributions. Payment of civil-servant salaries come from Kabul. That’s warlordism for you — corrupt and distasteful by definition. The question is whether to accommodate it or confront it.
Here’s Dowling’s take:
One can think of stabilization as a sequence from engagement to ceasefire to managed peace to self-sustaining peace to long term development and (perhaps) democratization. Nangarhar is ready for a stronger emphasis on sustainable development and governance capacity building that can withstand the inevitable departures of Sherzai and most US assistance. This is not to dismiss the contribution made by Sherzai. He is a good example that working with nasty characters can be a necessary and effective part of small wars.
Certainly history bears out the fact that it happens, and if the concern is security, effective would seem an apt description. The biggest contribution to security in Iraq came when the United States decided to cut deals with Sunni insurgents instead of confronting them. Despite gauzy lionizations, the former insurgents’ characters didn’t change when they shifted from anti- to pro-American, just their calculations of interest. Dealing with them is appropriate when everyone understands the transactionalism of the arrangement.
But let’s say the concern isn’t just immediate security but stabilization. Then it’s important to develop Dowling’s point about stabilization being a sequence of events — in this case, one that would compel Shirzai to change his ways for the benefit of Nangahar, or to help establish viable institutions that weaken Shirzai and assist in development. That way Shirzai’s achievements in security can be a platform to build upon and a weigh-station out of warlordism. Now, if the United States doesn’t have an interest in stabilization, then it should just look for a competent warlord and leave him alone. But if we’re deciding that we do, then leaving Afghanistan to the “governors” could look like a short-sighted approach.