Decentralizing Afghanistan might be only viable option

The China Post news staff

Weeks ago, several dozen Afghans lost their lives in protests against the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book at a U.S. military base, an incident that, according to the U.S., was accidental. Two U.S. military officers — who had no known connection to the Quran burnings — were also assassinated by an Afghan soldier inside a government ministry.

Then over the weekend came the news that a U.S. soldier is alleged to have committed a massacre of civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. The details are still sketchy but a Pentagon spokesman told Fox News that the U.S. soldier suspect currently in custody at a NATO base is in his mid-30s and was deployed twice in Iraq before being moved to Afghanistan. What is still unknown is his motivation. Why did a soldier allegedly open fire on sleeping families, killing men, women and young children? More facts will certainly become clearer in the days and weeks ahead but at the end of the day, these killings will not make sense. Too much of what is going on in Afghanistan does not make sense. The U.S. and its allies have spent a decade attempting “nation building” in Afghanistan, and while there have been some successes, a fundamental lack of understanding of this troubled nation’s history by the occupiers, as well as too lofty goals, mean this exercise is likely doomed to failure unless a major reassessment is made. CNN contributor Fareed Zakaria offered a succinct look at the problems of Afghanistan in a recent episode of his show “GPS” entitled, “Time to Get Real on Afghanistan.” Zakaria described U.S. President Barack Obama’s wish to strengthen the national government in Kabul to the point where the U.S. can withdraw as “a fantasy.” Afghanistan is made up of a collection of ethnic groups that have been involved in struggle since a coup in 1973 removed Afghanistan’s last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, from power. In fact, one of the only unifying elements tying the people of Afghanistan together is their shared religious beliefs. The current Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a well-educated man who speaks English and French alongside several regional languages, but while Karzai might cut a dashing figure when he visits world capitals, back home he is not a beloved leader. The United States is attempting to push the various tribal and ethnic factions to unify around the Karzai government, but this is simply not likely to occur. It’s time to start thinking of other solutions. Would the breakup of Afghanistan really be such a bad thing? Why not allow each ethnic group to run their own affairs in their own regions? Interestingly, the one area of Iraq that is peaceful and prosperous is also the area that has generally been left alone by occupying armies. Iraqi Kurdistan is for all intents and purposes an independent country. It has its own parliament and president and while it’s not exactly a model of democracy, it is a peaceful, stable and economically prosperous region. Kurdistan of course is majority Kurdish — a fact that points to the possibility that the best way forward in the region could be allowing ethnic groups to band together and rule themselves. The United States and its allies can either continue to slug it out until the announced withdrawal date of 2014 or begin thinking more realistically about the future of Afghanistan. If the U.S. and NATO pull out in 2014 without fundamentally altering the structure of governance in Afghanistan, civil war and a return to power by the Taliban are highly probable. The United States should consider de-centralizing power and withdrawing all but a small number of counterterrorist troops. It’s time to get real and understand that large numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan are counterproductive, propping up a centralized government in Kabul is unrealistic and expecting unity from broadly different ethnic groups is not going to occur in the short term.