The relationship between Afghanistan and America has been a turbulent one. Recent history would label the relationship as allies or even friends; as evidenced by the assistance given during the Soviet occupation in the last century and the more recent removal of the Taliban from power in the first part of this century. Both successes in their own right and milestones in Afghan-American relations.
There are more examples of progress in the last fifteen years as well; the focus on education, women’s rights, and gender equity, evolving security forces, concerted efforts against ISIS, and efforts in capacity-building only scratch the surface. NATO is certainly not without its successes employing Herculean efforts in the face of continued instability. And let us not forget those Afghans who stood up, and still stand, against a continued onslaught of insurgents and corruptive influences, with America and NATO, for the good of Afghanistan. Both sides have given. Both sides have risked. Trust has been a prickly subject between the parties; an elusive target. The list of contributing factors is lengthy; failed development projects, corruption, political selfishness, regional malcontents, colossal cultural divides, poor messaging… a lengthy list indeed. So the question remains: how can we rebuild the trust needed between Afghanistan and America?
Identify and empower the facilitators. I would not be much of a social scientist if my years among the Afghans did not imbue me with certain insights into this quandary. It is because of this experience I can definitively state that, most importantly, America needs to harness the cultural expertise. The nation is filled with True Sons and Daughters of Afghanistan. Those forward-thinking Afghans who share progressive values and are intrinsically motivated to better their country. They dream of a secure nation where opportunities exist for all. They tend to be nationalistic, pro-education, pro-gender equity, promote strong security, anti-corruption and warlordism, and understand the power of the voice of the people. Their efforts make them easily identifiable. They are the radio station executive who continues to air even though his station had been nearly destroyed by a bombing; the business man who donates goods to parents who send the boys AND girls to school; the provincial governor who holds public meetings for the common citizenry to voice grievances and a panel to address those grievances; the district NDS chief who actively targets insurgents at great risk to himself; the female provincial council member who personally returns the bodies of deceased insurgents to their tribe for proper burial according to the tenants of Islam; and the youth leader who becomes the eyes and ears against corruption during elections, faithfully monitoring polling sites and reporting wrongdoing. These quiet heroes and heroines can be found throughout the nation, tirelessly working toward a better life for their neighbors.
Identify the blockers. The other side of the coin is just as critical in building trust. There are those who are blockers to successful relations. Selfish and corrupt interests under cover of the current instability and using their government positions to solidify and grow their respective powerbases. It was the policy of NATO to exempt government officials with a significant level of immunity while they held government office. No leaders were guiltless in the aftermath of the ousting of the Taliban, but the policy ended up working against the new administration. A concerted effort to combat corruption by the current government alone is an almost insurmountable task; but a concerted effort by GIRoA and NATO is a formidable combination and would assure success especially utilizing transparent, cultural conflict resolution strategies coupled with messaging. Perhaps a change in policy is in order to leverage the full weight and power of the U.S. and GIRoA in order to reverse this trend.
Clear messaging. One consistent, or rather inconsistent, theme among the populace was the confusion over the political rhetoric. One of the most demoralizing messages which caused consternation was the apparent flip-flop between, “We are committed to the Afghan people” and “We are pulling out of Afghanistan”. The art of saying what you mean and meaning what you say can fall victim to political winds. Though the vast majority of the Afghan population desired a continued and close relationship, particularly with the U.S., as evidenced directly from the population as well as the Loya Jirga. The mixed messages were contributing factors hindering the willingness of the population to more overtly support NATO and GIRoA efforts. It has been their experience that patience and fence-sitting meant a greater chance of survival amid the ambiguity of US and Afghan leaders. A certain measure of safety from oppressive steadily increased the presence of various insurgent groups and corrupt interests. Politicizing serious issues more often than not sent the wrong message into the population and the backlash appeared to be apathy. The question, “Are we brothers… or something else?” has yet to be answered in the minds of the people.
Shoring up the tribal structures. It is a common misconception that tribalism and democracy are intrinsically at odds; nothing could be further from the truth. Honoring the traditional tribal structures and promoting healing after decades of war is no easy task. The tribal leadership has been targeted by the Soviets and the Taliban because they were viewed as a direct threat to their respective occupation forces, and rightly so. Systematic targeting of these traditional governing structures with persistent attacks has gone on for decades and still does to this day. The result has left the tribal structures weakened. The efforts are not limited to tribal and village elders. Nangarhar’s own Provincial Council Member, Angiza Shinwari, perhaps one of the most renowned women in the region was recently targeted and killed. The blow to women’s rights from her passing cannot easily be measured. Empowerment, and leveraging the traditional leadership structures within the current government framework might very well provide the link to the people GIRoA so desperately needs.
Regional influences. From a geopolitical point of view, one cannot speak to Afghan-American relations without considering the many regional players affecting stability in the country; of which Pakistan is at the forefront. Pakistan’s long-running agenda for Afghanistan is well known in virtually every circle. Whether it is the role Afghanistan plays in cross-border disputes or the not-so-veiled attempts of certain Pakistan government entities in sowing discord within Afghanistan. A true US-AF effort toward addressing this specific zone of security weakness along the AF-PK border would virtually eliminate insurgent safe havens. Perhaps someday Pakistan would be a U.S. ally in more than name only. Mutual security agreements, mutual trade agreements, and Durand Line resolution, and other key topics would go far in stabilizing the most volatile areas. But Pakistan is not the only player in the Great Game but a concerted effort from a more focused Afghan-U.S. alliance can be a powerful regional influence.
Accountability and oversight. No amount of agreements, accords, treaties, or hand-shakes will prevail without accountability. Accountability and oversight have been lacking in virtually every aspect of the Afghanistan effort, and lacking on a grand scale. Frankly, the examples are too numerous to list. Suffice to say, this shortcoming has allowed insurgent groups to maintain safe havens, corruption to blossom, and commercial border crossings to remain dangerously porous. The loss of revenue from the two largest border crossings, Torkham Gate, and Friendship Gate is staggering. All complex infrastructures require a measure of accountability and oversight to ensure successful endeavors. But like all important lessons, they must be learned and institutionalized throughout all efforts; whether to ensure compliance with the reintegration process, track the progress of certain critical development initiatives, or track and account for weapons and equipment from central depots in Kabul to Kandaks in remote areas, these needed skills are essential.
Youth explosion. Perhaps the greatest dynamic which has potential social and political repercussions on a massive scale is the demographic of youth. This largest growing demographic will have decisive roles in future elections, education, security, and almost every other cultural and social theme. They will decide future leaders, usher in a new age and revitalize the economy; as the literacy rate rises so will a resurgence of intellect and technological capabilities much needed in the nation… Or they could be largely coopted by fundamentalism; serve as a vulnerable population to insurgent organizations; bolster organized crime, and increase obstructionism. This demographic must be captured and nurtured to produce productive members in the new democracy. Youth groups continued education reform, specialized programs for youth leaders, international cooperatives, and the revitalization of the local tribal and village leadership will save the most powerful demographic in Afghanistan. They are the key to the future.
The Afghan-American relationship must find its place and grow with continued cooperation and a melding of international actions compatible within their cultural norms. The Afghan people have been told many things but the basis of trust will always be the success of an action. In Afghanistan, there are guests, friends, and brothers. The difference is in the amount of trust they have for one another.
Samuel James Striker, Ph.D., is the founder of Hollin-Phoenix Consulting, LLC: a company that specializes in socio-cultural research in unstable areas. He is considered by many to be one of the foremost conflict zone social scientists with extensive experience in unstable areas such as North Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Dr. SJ Striker is the author of “The Humanity of Warfare: Social Science Capabilities and the Evolution of Conflict.”
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Afghan Tribune | Samuel James Striker | Published: March 19, 2016, 11:20 AM