Last week, US President Joe Biden announced that the remaining 3,500 US forces in Afghanistan would be withdrawn by September 11, a decision that sets a clear date for the United States to withdraw from the military. The government’s plan to ensure sufficient stability in Afghanistan without a US troop presence remains unclear. As September approaches, Biden could face new questions about how the last of the U.S. forces can leave Afghanistan without leaving the chaos behind. Fortunately, there are new answers he can offer.
US policy in fragile, conflict-affected states is often viewed as a binary choice between total austerity or the largely discredited top-down state structure of recent decades. A multi-year research project on Islands of Stability suggests a middle ground: a regionally focused approach to stabilizing fragile states that could enable the United States to build local peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, even in ongoing conflicts, without having to wear boots.
Islands of stability are regions with a relatively high level of security and services in otherwise fragile states affected by conflict. Existing islands in states such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia have demonstrated remarkable resilience to adversity and can be an important source of stability for the central state. They also achieve what external intervention at the central government level normally does not promote: a monopoly of force through long-term cooperation between the government and its citizens.
A regional stabilization strategy would encourage the creation and consolidation of such islands of stability. A key element of this strategy would be to support decentralization efforts and support the direct election of governors in Afghanistan. Islands of stability are more likely to thrive when local citizens have a say and hold leaders accountable, and when provincial governments have the powers, resources, and popular support to maintain security and provide basic services. In addition, targeted investments in infrastructure and education in these regions could have positive effects on neighboring regions.
When and why do islands of stability arise? In interviews in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, we found that local political elites play a major role. Limited rulers who belong to a local majority group that is a national minority and therefore have limited upward political mobility, rule with a longer time horizon and have an interest in making a social pact with their people: long-term protection and public services in return for the Cooperation with the regional government. Hence, limited rulers tend to improve security and basic services, while in other similar regions the absence of such leaders is associated with poorer results. These leaders also tend to rely on more inclusive social pacts that offer women and ethnic minorities more protection and opportunities than in other regions.
In Afghanistan, which has been ruled by Pashtuns since the 18th century, Habiba Sarabi, an ethnic Hazara who served as governor of Bamyan from 2005 to 2013 and became the first Afghan woman to lead a province, is an example of a limited leader.
Another prominent example is the ethnic Tajik Atta Mohammad Noor, who served as governor of the Afghan province of Balkh from 2004 to 2018. Noor recognized his slim chances of winning the Afghan presidency and prioritized investments in security, infrastructure and education in order to sustain the local population in the long term. temporary support. By offering protection and services, Noor was able to build trust among the population and keep the Taliban in check. The relative success of Balkh Province contrasts with neighboring Kunduz Province, which was dominated by unlimited Pashtun representatives and was overrun by the Taliban twice.
Our results suggest that creating security at the regional level is a workable and sustainable approach. Unlike peaceful villages, which remain very vulnerable to outside attack, provinces like Balkh are large enough to defend against most domestic threats. At the same time, they are small enough to allow for local accountability and political representation. In the presence of long-time limited guides, the local population will be ready to share information with the provincial government. A senior member of the provincial council, whose name we wanted to keep confidential in view of the current political uncertainty in Afghanistan, told us: “With the exception of a marginal minority, the majority of the population … cooperates with the Balkh government. … If you see anything suspicious, report it to the relevant authorities immediately. “This enables the authorities to counter threats effectively. An influential local scientist, whose identity we also keep confidential, pointed out that this constant flow of information enables the security forces “to identify the location … of insurgent groups active in Balkh. Hence, whenever a small destructive activity takes place, it is clear where the source of the activity is. “
How can the United States apply the lessons of the Isles of Stability to the withdrawal from Afghanistan? In the future, the United States could focus on three areas: decentralization, long-term aid, and aversion to foreign subversion.
First, the United States should push for meaningful decentralization in the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In the current system, governors are appointed by the Afghan President. These governors are typically not localized and work with short time horizons and little local accountability. Converting Afghan governors into elected officials would help resolve this issue. Decentralization would also reduce the power of the presidency and thus likely reduce competition for what is currently the most important political prize to be won. This could make a peace agreement easier.
Although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will not readily agree to such a change, it is important to bear in mind that the United States still has considerable influence over the parties to the conflict even without forces on the ground. The Afghan government will continue to rely heavily on US financial, diplomatic and intelligence support, and the US can now more credibly threaten to leave, arguably increasing its leverage for reform efforts.
Second, by running longer-term aid projects, donors could create stronger incentives for local leaders to operate over a longer time horizon. One promising way to reduce conflict is to improve social contact between these islands and neighboring regions by building roads, railways and stronger communication networks, and by improving the quality and accessibility of higher education. For example, in Balkh Province there are several public and private universities that are already attracting students from other parts of the country. A local United Nations official who was not authorized to speak to us suggested turning Balkh Province into an “important hub for the economy” and called the province “good raw material for a state.”
Third, a careful and consistent international approach towards these regions and their neighborhoods is required as the islands remain vulnerable to outside interference. A United Nations-sponsored conference on Afghanistan could lead to mutual reluctance by regional powers. If such an agreement is not possible, the United States should stand firm if external powers like Pakistan continue to pursue military adventures in Afghanistan. It must be made clear that such behavior will have ramifications, be it international condemnation, suspension of military aid and exports or sanctions.
A regional approach contrasts with failed attempts by foreign forces to create local “ink stains” of government control in Afghanistan, including “government in a box” deliveries to newly conquered territories. In contrast to these, islands of stability already exist or can emerge under local leadership. This stabilization process will be slower, but it is more likely to result in permanent change than the policies that foreigners impose on a hostile population.
Balkh Province is not Bavaria, and local leaders and conditions in Afghanistan should not be romanticized. Still, islands of stability offer a way to create reasonably effective, inclusive, and accountable governments in a fragile state. They could be the best hope for a more effective US approach to stabilizing Afghanistan and other conflict-ridden regions of the world.