Author Archives: intothequagmire

Event: Koran Burning and Civilian Casualties: Has the Endgame Changed in Afghanistan?

Join us next Tuesday in WLH (100 Wall St) for a fascinating discussion on current situation in Afghanistan and lessons to be learned!


Event with Dr Catherine Todd

RVSP for dinner to Akriti Singh:

I Can See Afghanistan From My Car

In the spirit of “what I did last summer” and a shameless self-promotion, read about YAFers Mari and Anna’s adventures along the Tajik/Afghan border.

Thank You For a Great Year

The Yale Afghanistan Forum is one year old! Thank you to everyone who helped make this year a success. We will return in the fall with more events, including a new focus on cultural activities and community outreach.

The 2010-2011 officers are now listed on the About page.

Congratulations to Katarina on her graduation. We will miss her!

Thomas Barfield – Political Legitimacy

Thomas Barfield of Boston University spoke at Yale on April 6, 2010. Professor Barfield is Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations at Boston University. He is also the President of the American Institute of Afghan Studies. His most recent book is Political Legitimacy in the Land of the Hindu Kush: Ruling Afghanistan 1500-2010.

Summary by Anna Kellar

Professor Barfield began his talk by questioning two of the prevailing notions about Afghan history:

How can Afghanistan be a “graveyard of empires” if everyone conquered it before 1830?

And if it is such a fractious place, how did it keep a single dynasty for 200 years?

For a very long time, Afghanistan was ruled by Turkic tribes, who were hierarchical, with only certain lineages allowed to compete for power. A ruler like Babur was a professional king, who could rule any where. Conquest in this kind of society was more like a corporate takeover – the leadership changed, but there was little effect on the average person living in the territory, and no concern for the consent of the governed.

Professor Barfield made the analogy that a homogenous empire is like American cheese, with the same law applying uniformly to everyone within the borders. Central Asian Empires look more like Swiss cheese, with the valuable, cheesy parts of the empire governed directly, and the holes governed indirectly. It was true that no one conquered the Pashtuns, because their land simply wasn’t worth the trouble. The people who live in the ungovernable parts have to rely on the centers for supplies. The problem is that we tend to view Swiss cheese as defective American cheese and try to fill in the holes, in places that have never been directly governed.

There was no such thing as patriotism and defense of the homeland in Afghanistan until the British invasion in 1838. Then the success of a nationalist-religious uprising demonstrated to the rulers that they couldn’t defeat foreign powers without mobilizing their people. However, this changed the system of who had a say in governance, and every mobilization increased the unruliness of the population. Nonetheless, the people who lived in the ungovernable bits never took over the government. They fought the wars, but the old dynasty clung to the structures of power. Barfield argued that this divide matched a tribal split between Ghilzai and Durrani Pashtuns.

Ghilzai and Durrani

According to a saying, Ghilzai have the sword, Durrani have the state. The split comes from their different political ecology. Durrani live in the irrigated southern plains, they inherit valuable land, and so their politics are based around hierarchy and patronage, and they are risk averse. Ghilzai on the other hand, live in the eastern mountains, practice subsistence agriculture and have a more egalitarian political structure, exemplified by the jirga council.

In times of anarchy, Ghilzai do well. They value individual achievement, and aggressive leadership. Najibullah, Hekmatyar, Haqqani, and Mullah Omar all were/are Ghilzai. However, the skills that make good warlords, do not necessarily make good peace time leaders. The job of an Afghan king is to link the country to the outside world in order to bring in patronage. Following the fall of the Taliban, there was an abrupt shift from the wartime to the peacetime framework. People saw that the future lay with politics, and having the toughest, most aggressive leader, was no longer a good thing. Karzai, a Durrani with ties to the ruling dynasty, was brought in because he was able to charm the Europeans.

For an Afghan leader to be successful, he must manage both internal and external demands. He must tell foreigners that without him there will be chaos, while assuring Afghans that he can take the foreign money while keeping the foreigners themselves out of the country. There is another historical lesson: every leader installed by an incoming foreign power has failed, while every leader installed by a retreating power has succeeded. From Shah Shujah and the British to Karmal and the Soviets, the weak personalities that were initially chosen to rule managed to annoy both Afghans and their foreign patron. However, the strongmen installed by the fleeing foreign occupiers, such as Abdul Rahman or Najibullah, usually succeeded

Barfield argued that this pattern suggests that the American government should have abandoned President Karzai in the last election. The perception of power is power, so if we had backed Abdullah, he might have been able to win a run off. There was a misreading of signals between Washington and Kabul – while the American government tried to talk about neutrality and legitimacy, Afghans read that as our support for the status quo. Rather than trying for neutrality, which no one buys anyway, we’d be better off playing political hardball. There might be more political progress, according to Professor Barfield, if the Afghan government were run the way Lyndon Johnson ran the US House of Representatives, using development aid like patronage to encourage good behavior.

The Yale Afghanistan Forum would like to thank Professor Barfield, Professor Monsutti, The Gattis Smith Lecture Series and the Council of South Asian Studies.

Andrew Wilder: Winning Hearts and Minds?

Andrew Wilder, Research Director at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University in Boston, spoke March 30 at Yale. Wilder has been a leading critic of development aid deployed as a tool of counterinsurgency.

Andrew Wilder was born in Pakistan and has spent more than 35 years living, studying and working in Pakistan and Afghanistan.From January 2002 through April 2005, Wilder established and served as the first Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Afghanistan’s leading independent policy research institution. Between 1986 and 2001 he worked for several different international NGOs managing humanitarian and development programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including as the Pakistan/Afghanistan Director of Save the Children (US) from 1996 to 2001. His recent publications include an analysis of police reform efforts in Afghanistan and a study on perceptions of the Pakistan earthquake response. He has an interesting Boston Globe op-ed here: “A Weapons System Based on Wishful Thinking” For the past year he has been leading a two-year study on the assumed relationship between foreign aid and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa.


Wilder began by explaining the assumption that increased development aid leads to stabilization. This has become a centerpiece of American counter-insurgency strategy. “Where the road ends, the Taliban begins,” said General Eikenberry in 2005, and Vice President Biden declared in 2008: “How do you spell hope in Pashto and Dari? A-S-P-H-A-L-T.” Development actors have also embraced the idea that poverty breeds radicalism. Since 9/11 the money for development has grown dramatically, and much of those funds has been directed to peace building activities. At the same time, the role of the military and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) has become dominant in aid work.The logic for these developments is that poverty causes conflict, therefore reconstruction assistance will lead to economic development, and then stability. Also assumed is “aid wins hearts and minds” and that more government presence means more stability.

However, this reasoning ignores much that has been learned about the potential for negative outcomes of aid. Projects frequently generate grievances, losers as well as winners. Modernization in Afghanistan has often had destabilizing effects, in the 20s under King Amanullah, and during the American/Soviet competition over infrastructure projects in the 70s. The Army Counter-Insurgency Manual calls aid a weapons system. Doesn’t it make sense, Wilder argued, for a weapons system to be tested before we assume it works?

Wilder stressed that development is certainly worthwhile for its own sake, and has had some success for health, education, infrastructure etc. The point he wished to make was that development does not correlate with security, and is not a useful tool in counter-insurgency.

What Afghans Think

Wilder presented research to back up this claim. In interviews with Afghans in five provinces (Helmand, Paktia, Orozgan, Farah, and Balkh) he asked three questions: What are the drivers of instability, what do you think about development actors, and does development help with insecurity?

The government’s role in insecurity was by far the biggest concern.

The most common causes were:
1. bad government, corruption, predatory police
2. disrespect for culture/religion among the foreign forces
3. neighboring counties
4. unemployment
5. ethnic/tribal disputes

Perceptions of aid actors were mostly negative, with little distinction between NGOs, the military, and government ministries. The common complaints were unmet expectations and broken promises, unfair distributions, corruption, inappropriate or shoddy projects, and lack of consultation. For example, building a road angered those who it bypassed, while the haste and lack of oversight in the construction might mean that it is already crumbling, while the PRT that built it has already transfered out of the country.

The only development project with a positive reputation was the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which gave 70% of villages a choice of the small project that they wanted. People liked the equality and local involvement. This shows that the process of development is at least as important as the outcome.

Aid not only doesn’t lead to stability, it actually can be destabilizing. It can create conflicts between perceived winners and losers. Above all, the corruption involved in aid projects destroys much of their benefit. There has been a mafiazation of the construction business. In order to do a project in a violent area, the contractor must pay the Taliban or a local militia to provide security. Wilder cited a recent article in The Nation which estimated that Western money is the number 2 source of funding for the Taliban, and as much as 10% of development money ends up in Taliban coffers.

Wilder also pointed out that part of the reason development is seen as so important is that it is good for our hearts and minds. It is good for troop morale, and is the major justification for European involvement in Afghanistan. This pressure to be doing something leads to measuring projects by dollars spent, rather than by the effects of that money. The securitization of development has other long term risks, including a possible backlash against development work when it is realized that it didn’t bring peace. We should have a ten or fifteen year commitment to gradual development, not the current frantic push.

What to Do

Wilder’s recommendation was to spend as much money on development objectives as can be accounted for, and no more; to value quality over quantity. We have to look at our capacity in an area, as well as its need, or else get further into a vicious cycle of funding insecurity by throwing money at the places with the least ability to spend it well. This requires a return to the “First, do no harm” principles of development.

We have to recognize that political legitimacy in Afghanistan hasn’t historically been based on providing services, but on protection and justice. One way to help improve the government is to focus on the appointments mechanisms. Good individuals can change the face of a ministry. In fact, in the cases when a development project was viewed favorably, the credit was usually given to the individual in charge.

It is also important to realize that the Afghan government has become as much the problem as the solution, and that their interests do not always match ours. There are segments of the government who benefit from the status quo. The current efforts to bring a “government in a box” to districts like Marja are setting ourselves up to fail. It is unrealistic to think that good government will be easy in the provinces when it has failed in Kabul, and people fear the coming of the police more than the coming of the Taliban. The biggest problem we face in Afghanistan, in the end, isn’t military or development strategy, but our lack of a political strategy for Kabul.

The Yale Afghan Forum thanks Professor Wilder, the Gattis Smith Lecture Series, The Council on South Asian Studies, and everyone who attended the talk.

Michael Semple: Negotiating with the Taliban

Michael Semple spoke at Yale on February 22. A fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Semple is the author of the recent book Reconciliation in Afghanistan. From 2004-2007 he served as the deputy to the European Union special representative in Afghanistan, and previously has served as a political officer with the UN. He made headlines in 2007 when he was expelled from Afghanistan for traveling to a Taliban-controlled area. Semple is also the coauthor of a 2009 Foreign Affairs peice entitled Flipping the Taliban

Semple began his talk by noting that perceptions have shifted in West on the topic of reconciliation. From the stance of never negotiating with terrorists, we have begun to adjust to the idea that a lasting peace settlement has to include some form of talks.

Semple opened by showing two Taliban recruitment videos produced in Waziristan, one at the beginning of the insurgency, and one recently. The differences between the two showed the organization’a increasing sophistication and awareness of the value of propaganda. The videos are important because they show an attempt to appeal directly to young men, cutting out the traditional religious networks.

In 2002, it looked like the Taliban were gone for good. The ten violent clashes that occurred in Afghanistan that year were all internal struggles among militias – in fact, all the sides were on the payroll of the Afghan government. Where did the resurgence come from?

The new group of Taliban in Waziristan are different from the old regime of 1994-2001. Most of the those leaders fled Kandahar to Quetta. Their tribal links are different from the Waziristan Taliban, and while the new leaders claim allegiance to Mullah Omar, they have created their own networks, and operate autonomously. The Haqqani network, for example, has begun to expand beyond its tribal base in eastern Afghanistan. In the videos, they use “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” as a brand, despite the original Taliban government being against video images.

Reintegration vs Reconciliation

The UN special representative Kai Eide announced a plan for reintegration of Taliban, recognizing the need to begin preparation for a political solution. The recent meeting in London produced the Reintegration Trust Fund. Semple argued that the problem with reintegration, rather than reconciliation, is that it only reaches those of the rank and file whose motivations were monetary. In his opinion, efforts must be made to reach the leadership, and the commited ideologues as well. He pointed out that the blank-check of the reintegration fund was what made it appeal to Kabul, not its potential efficacy in counter-insurgency. The program also risks the same outcome as the demobilization efforts that were launched in 2001. Those programs were declared a success, despite clear evidence that they were run as a racket, with the same person cycling through several times to get the money, and only turning in out-of-date weaponry.

What has to happen for reconciliation to move forward:

1. The process has to recognize the constitution and the gains made since 2001.

2. It must be lead by the Afghan government, not foreigners.

3. There must be concrete steps, such as prisoner exchanges, the Taliban beginning show respect for humanitarian workers, and perhaps a new Loya Jirga.

What both sides must realize is that reconciliation is not a zero sum game. The Taliban’s bottom line – the absence of foreign troops – is something we’d like ourselves. They may realize that they are more likely to talk the foreigners into withdrawal than to fight them, since the reason troops continue to be in Afghanistan is the Taliban themselves. In exchange for the bottom line, they have to recognize that they will not control the government. They will have more power, but some parts of the country have been empowered as their enemies and would never accept their control.

For the US, the bottom line is no support for international terrorism, and the Taliban must be able to offer some guarantees on this subject.

Belfast or Geneva

So far, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government are interested in the necessary steps. There are sections of the government that benefit from the status quo, and the Taliban, growing in military strength, see no incentive to negotiate. They believe that the war will end in an absolute declaration of victory similar to the Geneva treaty that ended the Soviet occupation. The alternative, a negotiated compromise like the Belfast accords in Northern Ireland, hasn’t really caught on. That strategy, an agreement that both sides can call a moral victory, is the incentive to negotiate.

To make progress, we must shift our interactions from intelligence-gathering to politics. We have to try to understand the internal structures of the Taliban. The old leaders are more likely to desire power and stability, while the new Waziristan based leadership is benefiting from the conflict and is less likely to back down. We must have Pakistan onboard as well, so that potential schisms between commanders can be used politically, rather than militarily. Semple acknowledged the recent example of the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar by Pakistan as an illustration of this difficulty. A member of the Popolzai tribe, like Hamid Karzai, Mullah Baradar may have been talking about negotiating with the government, but he nonetheless continued to actively lead the insurgency. The demands of the actual war won out over the potential of reconciliation.

In short, the political solution is possible, but certainly not inevitable. Without a concerted effort, the endgame will be a bloody stalemate where the US draws down its forces, but continues to prop up Kabul, and the Taliban control the countryside in an increasingly intense civil war. The US government is now caught in a trap, where to leave things to Kabul is to fail to make progress, while taking the process into our own hands would undermine the legitimacy of the solution.

The Yale Afghanistan Forum would like to thank Mr. Semple, the Gattis Smith Lecture Series, the Council of South Asian Studies and everyone who attended.