Over three decades of war in Afghanistan have proven that achieving victory on the battlefield is easier than translating that victory into desirable political outcomes. The repeated failures of the US and its international and Afghan partners to establish an effective governance system in Afghanistan reflects the most neglected aspect of the US coalition's exit strategy: developing an appropriate political system for a war-shattered multi-ethnic society.
The current consensus in the US media appears to be that there is no military solution to securing Afghanistan and that public sentiments are increasingly turning against the war. In England another mantra, "we must negotiate with the Taliban," has been in vogue for much longer. The particular deceit used in the recent assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani– who was to meet with "the bearer of an important message" from the Taliban – has clarified the prospects of peace talks with the Taliban. As Ata Muhammad Noor, Governor of Balkh province in Northern Afghanistan and a powerful Rabbani ally, has said, holding peace talks with the Taliban "is utterly meaningless". President Karzai, who insisted on continuing the peace process with the Taliban at Rabbani's funeral, has since changed his mind and now wishes only to negotiate the Taliban's handlers–the government of Pakistan.
Keeping a large US fighting force in Afghanistan is no longer effective or necessary because the reasons for resurgence of the Taliban are primarily political and thus require urgent political attention. The US and NATO must move away from relying on particular individuals, families or groups to control and secure Afghanistan. It has not worked so far, and it will not work in the future. Instead, the US should, in partnership with local leaders, promote fundamental democratic principles, values and institutional processes in order to design a more appropriate constitution and governance system that offers all the peoples of Afghanistan, including the rural Pashtun (who are the main supporters of the Taliban, Haqqani and Hekmatyar groups), a stake in the governance of their own communities as well as the nation.
There is an opportunity to start this process at the upcoming Bonn II international conference to be held on December 05, 2011.The following key items should be included in the meetings' agendas.
First, there must be decentralization via Constitutional amendment or revision. This means that all political offices such as the Village Headman, Mayor and Ward Manager in municipalities, District Officer and provincial Governor, as well as membership in all Councils (Shuras), should be elected by popular vote in their constituent units.
Replacing centralized appointment and dismissal of these, and all other government officials– one of the major reasons for the country's pervasive nepotism, cronyism and corruption–with recruitment and retention committees or commissions will contribute significantly to democratization, the de-politicization of ethnicity and tribalism. The people of Afghanistan already practice local self-governance, so familiar to the peoples of the US, in managing community affairs beyond central government control. Such a system could offer possible incentives to the segment of the Pashtun population reluctantly supporting the Taliban to lay down their arms, and catalyze the expansion of such modes of governance to all levels of Afghan society and politics.
Second, the decentralization of executive power must be accompanied by a clearly articulated division of powers, duties, rights and responsibilities (pertaining to legislation, implementation and oversight of legal provisions, national revenue collection, reallocation and distribution as well as management of resources and provisions of services, etc.) of national, provincial, municipality, district and village government units. Decentralizing Afghanistan's security forces –the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP)-- on the principles of community policing and local self-defense units will be equally important, as will as ensuring the joint management of these forces with the appropriate central government ministries. Afghans, rather than foreign forces, will be capable of sustaining this approach.
These basic political reforms are necessary if the United States and her NATO allies are to have a reliable and honest Afghan government as a partner. Advocating for these political changes is urgent, especially if President Obama is looking for a viable exit strategy in Afghanistan. Consideration of these critical political issues of Afghanistan in Bonn II conference, however, should incorporate two closely related tasks.
1. Undertaking a scientific population enumeration of Afghanistan for the first time in its history and issuing a verifiable means of proof of Afghan citizenship to all qualified individuals.
2. Discarding the Current Flawed Electoral System, the "Single Nontransferable Vote-SNTV" in Afghanistan, by adopting a more appropriately designed electoral system and electoral units within each province, based on population size.
The management of constitutional revision in Afghanistan should not be left to the Karzai regime for a variety of reasons. Rather, the international community, assisted by a new independent Commission or Interim Afghan Administration, should assume responsibility. Provisions should be made to exclude members of the Interim Afghan Administration or Commission from seeking or accepting high government positions under the revised or amended Constitution for at least five years.
Similarly senior members of the Karzai regime, jihadi leaders and commanders, as well as Taliban and other armed opposition leaders and commanders, should refrain from seeking office for at least five years after the constitutional change. Such a commitment will offer a new generation of educated Afghans a chance to enter politics to stabilize and secure peace in their country.
Consideration of these policy issues by the US would not only contribute significantly to the stabilization of Afghanistan, but they will make it possible to substantially reduce American forces over the next few years without jeopardizing the safety and security of the US or the peoples of Afghanistan and the larger region. It is time for the US and her international partners as well as the Afghan ruling elites to address long-neglected political reform as soon as possible.