The two old men shivered in the frigid December Afghan night, their hands rattling in the handcuffs that bound them. I pondered what to do. Polish soldiers had caught them an hour earlier as they dug in the ground along a newly paved road. The Polish suspected the men had been planting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices.) The men swore they were merely irrigating their fields of winter wheat. As had happened countless times during my tour as an embedded combat adviser with the US Army in Ghazni Province, the fate of these men rested in my hands.
Were they elderly illiterate farmers or Taliban soldiers? Or both?
In the end, I asked members of the Afghan National Police to detain them for the evening and investigate the matter themselves in the morning. The Afghans agreed and took the men away in a police car. The next morning I learned the police had immediately let the men go, after they promised to turn themselves in the next day. But they never did. And as much as I wanted to go find the men myself and haul them to face a judge, I couldn’t: Afghanistan must be governed by Afghans if American forces are ever to leave it in peace.
Countless soldiers have faced a similar quandary in Afghanistan – and many more will do so in the future, now that the United States has committed itself to the country for another 10 years. I believe the most important policy we could adopt in Afghanistan is one that helps the Afghans effectively govern their country on their own.
To have any hope for success, the US and Afghanistan must accomplish these four goals.
The Afghans should reform their government, devolving power away from a central state (and a presidency) that has kept too much of it. The governance system established at the Bonn Conference, in December 2001, has not served Afghanistan well. The Kabul government fails to meet the basic needs of its citizens because most government officials are not responsible to the constituents they serve, but to the system of patronage that keeps them in power.
Most Afghans do not directly elect their provincial governors or local (district-level) leaders: These officials are appointed by the presidency and serve at the president’s pleasure. As a result, they have an incentive to embrace the endemic corruption that plagues all levels of the Afghan state, enriching themselves and their superiors as they work to advance to, or hang on to, positions of power.
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