By Owen Kirby
The assassination last week of Kandahar police chief, and southern Afghan powerbroker, Abdul Raziq Achekzai, and the narrow escape of the top U.S. military commander exposes certain contradictions in U.S. policy in Afghanistan since 2001. From the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom (now Resolute Support), the United States has pursued twin objectives of counterterrorism (sometimes counterinsurgency) and institution-building in Afghanistan. In theory, they are two sides of the same coin: security is required to build institutions, institutions are needed to sustain the peace. In practice, however, the pursuit of the two tracks has been uneven and, at times, in conflict.
The fact that the most influential Afghan official in southern Afghanistan 17 years after the fall of the Taliban was not a civilian but rather a 39-year-old police commander reflected not so much the inherent turbulence of the south as much as the failure of institutions to take root in the post-Taliban period, and the dashed expectations of Afghan citizens whose loyalties have remained up for grabs – the reliance on a strongman to fill the institutional void both a cause and a consequence.
Whether local powerbrokers (“warlords” in local parlance) such as Raziq can be enablers of institution building or an obstruction depends one’s perspective. Escaping the assassin’s bullets last week, Gen. Scott Miller later tweeted that Raziq was a “great friend” and an Afghan “patriot.” He was not the first U.S. commander to publicly offer kind words for the police chief. Any U.S. serviceman or woman who deployed to Afghanistan’s south during Raziq’s tenure also likely owed him a debt of gratitude for keeping resupply lines open through his frontier outpost in Spin Boldak on the AfPak border.
If Raziq shared U.S. military objectives in Afghanistan, he did not share in the vision of the more than four million Afghans who braved Taliban violence this past weekend to vote in oft delayed parliamentary elections. Rule of law and representative institutions were not integral to Raziq’s approach to security and stability. If the Taliban hoped to frighten Afghans away from legitimizing the post-911 political order at the polls, Raziq made his own contributions to undermining public confidence in representative governance. I know, as I personally observed his men returning teeming ballot boxes to his compound in Spin Boldak during the last parliamentary elections in 2010; ballot boxes that, in some instances, were “secured” from polling centers that never opened, or had been “relocated.”
By some accounts, in recent years the residents of Kandahar City came to appreciate the security Raziq’s reportedly heavy-handed tactics afforded the country’s second most populace urban center; though one perhaps should not forget U.S., Canadian and British troops, who also made the ultimate sacrifice along the way. If such accounts of local sentiment were accurate, allegations of human rights abuses, informal prisons, racketeering and drug running by Raziq or his forces were a price some Afghans were willing to pay for the sake of security.
Raziq’s most important constituency, however, was not fellow Afghans – current president Ashraf Ghani was publicly at odds with him – but rather U.S. military leadership that behind closed doors won many a debate with civilian counterparts about the merits of strongman rule. With institutions of good governance on the losing side in those debates, Raziq’s death will thus be a test of the durability of the preeminence of counterterrorism in U.S. Afghan policy. While there may be no immediate risk – Afghan forces backed by the U.S. are capable of fending off any Taliban advance as demonstrated in the capital of Ghazni province this past August – at some point the Afghans will need to fend for themselves and that is when the true test will come.
If there is any question about what the future of Afghanistan could look like absent institutions Afghans themselves are willing to defend or an international military presence to keep extremists at bay, one does not have to look very far from the site of last week’s assassination. Close by Kandahar City, large swathes of territory have already been ceded back to the Taliban, most notably in neighboring Helmand province, where British troops endured their heaviest combat casualties since WWII attempting to lay the groundwork for future Afghan stability.
Across Afghanistan today, the inconvenient reality is that despite significant international investment of men and material since 2001, the Taliban controls or contests more territory than at any time since 911. Some might argue that a greater focus on strengthening the rule of law and the foundations of good governance in Afghanistan may not have succeeded in preventing this. One thing is certain: the bet on one regional strongman did little to deter it.