The Good, The Bad, & The Worse

(Photo credit: Flickr/isafmedia)

Luke Mogelson has produced an excellent investigative piece for NYT Magazine on the role that the new Afghan Local Police (or ALP, not to be confused with Afghan National Police, or ANP) are playing in provincial politics. The quick and dirty is that ethnic, tribal, and family affiliations are causing the ALP to serve as the proxy du jour for local militias—i.e. warlordism, i.e. the “bad old days” before the Taliban took over.

One thing many people fail to realize about the Taliban is that it actually was worse before they came to power. That was part of what enabled them to keep power, despite being morally equivalent to a homicidal pederast working for the Spanish Inquisition. Few Afghans appreciated the restrictions on their day-to-day lives that the Taliban imposed, but being forced to grow a beard was better than having Warlord A ride through and steal all your village’s food one week, then Warlord B ride through and slaughter all the village’s men for collaborating with Warlord A the next.

Thirty-two years of warfare have a way of building up some serious grudges. Much as we witnessed in Iraq, it was inevitable that factions of the Afghan populace would use the new regime as an excuse for power-grabbing. As well as land-grabbing, women-grabbing, and donkey-grabbing if the opportunity should arise. But while the lessons of history are always there in front of us, it can sometimes be difficult to interpret them.

Mogelson’s perhaps most interesting point in the article is the opposing results emerging from the ALP endeavor. In Kandahar, where ethnic homogeneity is par for the course, the ALP have been remarkably successful at empowering local villages to protect themselves, and earning the respect of local civilians. In Baghlan province in the north, however, the ALP have come to represent a local mafia, engaging in shooting battles with the ANP (whom they accuse of starting the bad behavior) in the streets.

These results are each linked to respective historic precedents. On the success side, Mogelson points to the reign of King Zahir Shah and his prime ministers, who from 1933 until 1973 pursued an effective policy of gradual modernization and distributed, localized power. Policing remained a local duty—as with the ALP—and that era is widely seen as a ‘golden age’ in Afghan history. The failure precedent is equally striking: throughout the Soviet-Afghan war, which ended in 1989, and until the Taliban took power in 1996, warlords were the epitome of ‘localized power’. Constantly shifting allegiances, coupled with a war-hardened sensibility of how cheap life could be, led to innumerable deaths and the complete incapacitation of any centralized government.

Neither of these comparisons is inaccurate. These are the real challenges that will face the Afghan people after the withdrawal of US forces: not how to keep the Taliban out, but how to keep the country’s many pieces from tearing each other apart. A unified central authority is an impossible solution. It is a question of how—not whether—to effectively distribute power at the local level, while avoiding the kind of nouveau warlordism that currently plagues the north.

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