18 August 2010

Greed and Grievance in Kandahar

As the last US elements of the "Kandahar surge" assume battlespace in and around the city, we are at a critical juncture in the ISAF effort to establish what GEN Petraeus describes as an "oil spot" around Kandahar City and its environs. The daunting task of establishing this zone of security, governance, and prosperity falls on a combination of mostly US and Canadian soldiers and officers (from 2/101 ABN, 1/4 ID, and TF Kandahar). Rajiv Chandrasekaran's recent article in the Wash Post does an excellent job of highlighting the challenges that face these forces, drawing a comparison between the US efforts in Baghdad in 2006-07 and the ongoing efforts in Kandahar.

Ultimately, though, he concludes (accurately) that the dynamics at play in Kandahar are vastly different than they were in Baghdad. ISAF forces in Kandahar must convince a predominately Pashtun, Sunni populace (vice a split Sunni-Shia populace in Baghdad) that the "legitimate" elected government (and security forces) can provide for them and protect them from the murder and intimidation campaign of the Taliban. They must also convince them that this government (led by the figurehead Governor Tooryalai Wesa, the powerful and corrupt Provincial Council Chairman Ahmed Wali Karzai, and the competent but under-resourced Mayor Gulam Haider Hamidi) has the best interests of the local populace at heart - and are not using their positions to advance their personal/financial interests. This will not be an easy sell.

As we examine the situation in Kandahar, I believe it's extremely useful to consider the "greed vs. grievance" model that Tony Corn outlines in his recent Small Wars Journal article - "COIN in Absurdistan." Corn argues that the grievance-based COIN model that applied in Iraq cannot be accurately applied in Afghanistan in 2010. Instead, he claims that:

"Today, a good case could be made that the political divergences (Grievance) that once existed between the main protagonists (Kabul officials, regional warlords, Taliban of all stripes, not to mention Pakistani officials) have taken a backseat, and that a convergence of sorts has begun to emerge on a shared economic objective (Greed): milking the American cow for all it’s worth, and for as long as possible."

Most of the arguments and policy/strategy discussions we hear related to Afghanistan seem to default to the "grievance" model. For example, in his recent COMISAF Counterinsurgency Guidance (released Aug 1, 2010), most of GEN Petraeus' advice revolves around winning over the local populace by addressing their grievances (in terms of security, governance, and services) and building trust in ISAF and the GIRoA. Corn essentially argues that we're missing half of the picture if we're only considering this grievance-focused solution. We must also consider the alternative that many of the most prominent and powerful Afghans are in fact motivated by greed and opportunism. It is therefore in their interest to maintain the status quo of massive US and international spending that fuels the Afghan "rentier state" economy. As Ambassador Peter Galbraith explains:

"Americans view the war as a contest between the U.S.-backed Karzai government and the Taliban insurgency. The reality is more complex. In the Pashtun south where the insurgency is strongest, local power brokers and officials have relations with the Taliban, who are tribesmen and relatives. They make deals with each other to run drugs, trade weapons, eliminate rivals, and rig elections. Both sides collaborate in order to profit from massive U.S. expenditures. The U.S. spends hundreds of millions on Afghan security companies who use the proceeds to pay off the Taliban not to attack, or, in some cases, to stage attacks so as to enable the local warlord (a.k.a. security contractor) to hire more men at higher prices."

So, how should this reality inform (and change) our understanding of the complexities at work in Kandahar? As Corn explains (in what I view as the most important takeaway from his paper), we must view Hamid Karzai not as the Afghan president, but rather as the CEO of "Karzai Incorporated." From this lens, many of his recent and past actions make sense - repeatedly shielding various cronies from anti-corruption investigations and using his position as president to gain control of a greater share of foreign aid and increase his patronage. In Kandahar in particular, the situation described by Ann Marlowe appears to be spot on:

"Ahmed Wali Karzai is running a mafia out of Kandahar, and his brother Hamid Karzai is protecting him. This mafia is worth over a billion a year to him, if the Times of London is to be believed...In fact, it may no longer be the case that AWK does what he does in order to strengthen the hand of his brother: It may be that Hamid does what he does to strengthen the hand of AWK."

When you examine Hamid Karzai's recent decision to eliminate all private security companies (PSCs) through this "greed" lens it begins to make more sense. I believe this surprise announcement by Karzai is another move in his efforts to gain more leverage over ISAF leaders in his overall campaign to maintain his "bottom line" as leader of Karzai, Inc. When coupled with his recent criticism and challenging of the efforts of the US-backed Major Crimes Task Force and Special Investigative Unit, both of which have implicated several close associates of Karzai in massive corruption and money laundering schemes, his latest move to eliminate PSCs is likely motivated by two complimentary goals:

1) In the short term, to essentially "call the bluff" of ISAF leaders who constantly pressure Karzai to eliminate corruption. By speeding up the timetable for eliminating PSCs to four months, Karzai will force ISAF leaders to concede that PSCs are in fact necessary for success in Afghanistan (at least over the next 12-18 months as ANSF build capacity);

2) In the medium to long-term, to enable Karzai's government to exert more control over the private security efforts across the country - the competition to Karzai, Inc. Under Karzai's plan, his government would oversee all efforts to transition and integrate what are currently "private" companies into the formal Afghan security forces. Thus, Karzai Inc. would essentially determine which private companies continue to exist (albeit, now as nominal Afghan security forces) and which would not. This is the ultimate move to consolidate control of the security industry and eliminate competition.

Claims of confusion and outrage on the part of some of these private security companies, like the massive and powerful Watan Group that employs over 24,000 security guards, are in fact staged blustering to disguise the consolidation going on below the surface. Ahmad and Rashid Popal, owners of Watan, are actually cousins of Hamid and Ahmed Karzai and have a long history of cooperation and mutual interest. While their claims that security guards who lose their jobs will join the Taliban may at first seem to have merit, its much more likely that Watan will end up growing and gaining more power/influence (albeit likely under a different name or even as nominal ANSF). Whatever the public/official outcome, the Karzai enterprise stands only to gain through this consolidation of PSCs. For an excellent summary and analysis of this dynamic, please see Kim Kagan and Carl Forsberg's piece for the Institute for the Study of War, written at the end of May, that essentially predicted this move for consolidation.

Looking forward, US and ISAF strategy and policy must recognize this reality and integrate an understanding of the "greed" paradigm into our efforts. While addressing the grievances of the local populace is a critical component of our COIN campaign, we cannot become solely focused on achieving this end. As Tony Corn advocates, we must complement the ongoing tactical/operational military surge with a policy of coercive diplomacy at the strategic level. At the most basic level, coercive diplomacy would send the message (primarily to Karzai and his cronies) that our commitment is not open-ended and unconditional. This policy represents our best option to affect the growing influence and "greed" of Karzai, Inc. For a more detailed discussion of what this policy might look like at the national level, see the recent articles by Robert Blackwill in Politico (advocating a de facto partition of Afghanistan) and Richard Haas in Newsweek (advocating a "patchworkization" of Afghanistan).

So, what does this look like in Kandahar - the "main effort" in our current campaign? Ultimately, we must resolve the dissonance between Obama's policy of unconditional support for Hamid Karzai (and thus the larger Karzai enterprise) and the ISAF strategy of providing a lasting and comprehensive solution in Kandahar. As Corn succinctly explains, "either the policy is (rightly or wrongly) to consider Karzai as indispensable, in which case his Kandahar brother is untouchable, and a Kandahar offensive is a non-starter; or a Kandahar offensive is seen (rightly or wrongly) as the indispensable centerpiece of a COIN strategy, in which Karzai's brother has to go." This is not an easy choice - but we must make a decision. My vote: Ahmed Wali Karzai must go (or at least be heavily marginalized). By acknowledging and eliminating him as the primary source of "greed" in Kandahar, we have an opportunity to send a message to the people and at the same time eliminate a major source of many of their grievances.


  1. I think we can agree that there are no 'technical' limitations to eliminating AWK. However, the political stomach to execute any strategy to marginalize/terminate him without resorting to buy-outs (thus perpetuating corruption) a-la-Sahwa would be something of a small miracle. The political maneuvering required is quite sophisticated and requires a type of Kissinger/Machiavellian strategic pective that is ruthless and incidentally, categorically shunned among those that would have to do it (military and diplomatic corps). It seems that without the ideological excuses of Jihadi/Communist we seldom act to shape and define the outcome...and even then it is often by third-rate proxy and plagued by a strategic myopia defined by the limits of the excuse-du-jour. In other words, we don't do the kind bloody politics that leaves our hands dirty all that well anymore. We are idealists at the core. Smart enough to recognize the problem (eventually) but too scared to act without the priestly absolution provided by "threats to our way of life".

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