The Art of Afghan Alliance Building: Foreign Affairs

The Art of Afghan Alliance Building
Winning Hearts and Minds, Eight Years On
Kathy Gannon, Foreign Affairs, October 13, 2009

Eight years ago, Washington's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, told former mujahideen leaders -- the likes of Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf -- that they had a choice: either be part of the solution or the problem.

He jokingly said that Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notoriously vicious Uzbek warlord -- once aligned with the communists, later with the anticommunist mujahideen, then with the terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and finally with the United States -- now called himself a "man of peace." That was just months after Dostum had crammed hundreds of young Pashtun men who had fought for the Taliban, many of them wounded, into unventilated train cars in searing heat. Dozens of them died before arriving at their final destination: a grossly overcrowded prison in his stronghold in the northern province of Sheberghan. By then, Dostum had become Washington's new best friend.

Over five years ago, I argued in a Foreign Affairs essay ("Afghanistan Unbound," May/June 2004) that the windows of opportunity were closing for Afghanistan and that making allies of Afghans -- not military action -- would win what was then a losing war. I wrote then that the alliances the United States and its coalition partners had made with Afghan warlords, whose internecine fighting had killed 50,000 of their own people when they were last in power, were returning Afghanistan to its lawless and insecure pre-Taliban days. Choosing to ignore the warlords' past crimes, I argued, would embolden them, instead of making them the good partners the West so naively believed they could be. Washington would not meet its goal of greater homeland security, and for Afghans, peace and prosperity would remain elusive.

Indeed, as the United States and its NATO allies slog on in Afghanistan, it is Washington's mismanagement of local alliances that has proved to be the undoing of its strategy in the country. And, most damaging, these mistakes have cost the United States the allegiance of ordinary Afghans -- an allegiance that is critical to winning the war, collecting intelligence to find al Qaeda, and ensuring that Afghans themselves prevent whoever is in power, including the likes of Sayyaf, from using their country as a safe haven.

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