Robert Komer famously analyzed the mess U.S. foreign policymakers made in Vietnam in his study, “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing.” He would not be terribly surprised, were he still with us, to learn that in Afghanistan bureaucracy has done its thing yet again. Actually, given the proliferation of bureaucratic organizational chart boxes over the past forty years, this Afghan thing is worse than the Vietnam thing. And unfortunately all the brilliant new counterinsurgency manuals in the world can’t fix problems that stem from using the same old rickety government operating system. Hence America’s ambitious Afghanistan “surge” has undermined its own strategic objectives.
On March 27, 2009, intending to address years of under-resourcing, President Obama announced his young Administration’s new Afghanistan strategy. In addition to boosting American troop strength to reverse the Taliban insurgency’s momentum and train Afghan forces, the surge aimed to bolster governance and development assistance to stabilize the country “not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up.” The approach emphasized Afghanistan’s fundamentally decentralized politics and insurgency: U.S. personnel would focus on local Afghan officials in order to “incentivize improved performance, accountability, and transparency.”1 Three years later, as the American drawdown begins, the Afghan National Security Forces face significant (and well-documented) challenges to hold rural Afghanistan. But if counterinsurgency is a localized “contest for governance” as much as a military struggle, how ready is the Afghan government to provide and sustain an alternative to the insurgency?
The good news is that, in its endorsement of “bottom up” approaches to Afghan governance and development, the United States embraced a key understanding that all Afghan politics truly is local. The bad news is that it’s easier to embrace this dynamic in theory than it is to affect it in practice. And in practice, the bureaucratic mechanics of the U.S. surge’s local governance programs have actually undermined the broader U.S. mission in Afghanistan: to cultivate basic, resilient governance that will endure, despite a persistent insurgency, when the U.S. presence draws down.
In practice, the surge inadvertently fostered a collection of unsustainable rentier mini-states within its districts of focus in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Inundated with U.S. resources and personnel, the governors of these districts will maintain power as long as foreign inputs flow. But this is not the progress in building the broader, legitimate institutions or sustainable service delivery that President Obama’s policy aspired to foster. From the “bottom up”, the Afghan government’s ability to keep local support is more likely to erode and, with it, Afghanistan’s ability to maintain President Obama’s minimal goal: a sustainable, durable Afghan government that can withstand a U.S....