Political Processes and Institutional Capacity in Afghanistan

Though it may seem superfluous when Joshua Foust is a fellow co-guest-blogger, I’m writing about Afghanistan. Dr. Kimberly Kagan, the head of the Institute for the Study of War, has a really befuddling op-ed in the Washington Examiner. Though most of the op-ed is really quite stock and reasonable, one phrase is particularly befuddling. She writes that "The Afghan political system is considerably more mature than Iraq’s governing structure when the ‘surge’ began." 

ISW is a small think tank, but it has a decent amount of leverage among conservatives. What worries me about this claim is that it’s closely related to the mistaken statements we made in early years about Iraqi governance. Though the Afghan government has a lot of staffers, and frankly the upcoming elections are likely to be less violent than some elections were in Iraq, but that a strong government does not make. Afghan ministries are over-stuffed with poorly-qualified patronage staff, and US/ISAF assessments of their capabilities are particularly low.  The Ministries of Interior and Defense are still poorly run, and the MoI lacks even the ability to run logistics for its own police forces. The Ministry of Justice lacks legal training (including oftentimes basics such as copies of the legal code), funding, and relevance on much of the ground. 

 The government in Kabul is in many ways more legitimate across ethnic and regional lines than in Iraq, but lacks capability on the ground level. The institutional background that was assumed in Iraq – the basic knowledge such as how to run an army’s logistics, or how to run a town court according to codified law, or heck, even high literacy rates – often don’t exist in Afghanistan. So the Afghan political system has relatively speaking more buy-in from elites of all ethnicities and regions, sure. But I’d argue that the Afghan government’s capabilities will grow far more slowly, particularly outside the key urban areas. In Afghanistan, getting troop numbers of is utterly important, sure. But the Iraq Surge’s success tempts us to ignore other factors at our peril.

(Disclosure #1: Dr. Kagan was a keynote speaker at the Yale Political Union while I was one of the leaders of that organization. She was a great guest. Disclosure #2: I wrote about these issues previously in a co-authored report soon to be released by CSIS Press, but I have not discussed Dr. Kagan’s op-ed with my co-authors, and my conclusions are my own) 

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