The political upheaval in Egypt should serve as a wakeup call to U.S. policymakers that we ignore problems of political governance and legitimacy in Afghanistan at our own peril. While Egypt is a dramatically different state than Afghanistan, both governments suffered from a legitimacy gap that U.S. policymakers failed to take seriously. Egypt demonstrates that our foreign policy establishment’s standard procedures for advancing political stability may be based on the wrong assumptions and lead to dangerous outcomes.
Following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979, we began providing vast sums of foreign assistance to reward and strengthen the Egyptian government and to promote regional stability. Yet over time—even as evidence mounted that the Egyptian people were increasingly frustrated with their government and struggling under its rule—our aid continued to flow. While we called for political reform in Egypt, our money spoke to our priorities. We spent the vast majority of our assistance on the Egyptian military, roughly $1.3 billion annually.
In contrast, our democracy and governance budget for Egypt ran around $29 million in 2010, most of which flowed to Egyptian government-sponsored organizations. We did not leverage our vast funds of money to demand reforms. We urged and cajoled President Hosni Mubarak, but without consequences when he ignored us.
Many U.S. policymakers feared the consequences for stability in Egypt and the region if we reduced or reallocated our assistance. But by glossing over the Egyptian people’s grievances, we may have contributed to worsening instability. Not only did we violate our democratic values but in the eyes of many Egyptians and others in the region we became complicit in their political repression. And after all of the moral compromises and financial costs, we now find ourselves facing a highly uncertain environment in Egypt where the risks are as great as the opportunities.
Let us now hope that Egyptians can overcome the mistakes that were made in delaying these reforms and create a stable democracy. In Afghanistan, though, we have an opportunity to get it right.
In Afghanistan we are repeating the same mistakes. Our definition of what constitutes stability is too narrow and our approach in advancing it is flawed. The objective of the current strategy in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in the region and prevent its return to Afghanistan. In order to achieve this objective, the United States and our NATO and International Security Assistance Force allies seek to degrade the Taliban insurgency while strengthening Afghan government capacity. Our priority is strengthening the Afghan government’s capacity to control violence within its territory, not improving how it governs.
To advance this concept of stability, we are pouring billions of dollars annually into Afghan National Security Forces as well as building local militias (the most recent formal program operates under the moniker Afghan Local Police, although there have been multiple abandoned predecessors) to protect local communities. In 2010, we spent approximately $9 billion on the Afghan National Security Forces, and in 2011 we aim to spend approximately $11.6 billion to build up the ANSF.
Yet the Afghan government, like President Mubarak’s regime, has little support from its own people and is unresponsive to their grievances. In Afghanistan, formal power rests in the executive, and there are few checks on President Hamid Karzai. The parliament is weak, the judiciary is beholden to President Karzai, and local governing bodies lack clear responsibilities or the power of the purse.
Moreover, President Karzai appoints more than a thousand positions countrywide, including governors, police chiefs, and heads of ministries. And most aid flows from Kabul downwards. Few avenues exist to address people’s needs or grievances. They cannot hold their officials to account; they cannot set their own priorities.
The absence of rule of law means that people are particularly vulnerable. If someone steals their land, rapes their daughter, bribes them, or kills their husband, Afghans have no recourse to justice. And these grievances simmer over years and years—just as they did with the Egyptians. And as in Egypt, these dynamics are perceived by international supporters as secondary to the strength of the security forces and governmental control, not recognizing that these factors are in fact undermining security.
In fact, because the United States continues to define its objectives in Afghanistan largely in negative terms related to Al Qaeda and under a narrow definition of security, it has been unable to map out what form of partnership or form of Afghan government it wants to support following the withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Karzai already knows what he wants—the kind of state apparatus and military that Mubarak possessed. Yet given the realities in Afghanistan and the lessons we have learned from Egypt, as well as the weariness of the U.S. taxpayer, this model is unrealistic and unlikely to succeed. Yet U.S. policymakers don’t know what the alternative political end state is.
What’s certain is that U.S. policymakers have failed consistently and clearly to advocate political reforms that would potentially create the deeper stability we seek. As in Egypt, U.S. and NATO leaders raise the importance of battling corruption and improving government responsiveness, but institute no consequences for Afghan governmental inaction. Our assistance and troop levels are not conditioned on constitutional or electoral reform, or other areas that might tackle the population’s grievances. Building a school or a well or training a platoon of soldiers does not substitute for good governance. It does not address the underlying grievances of exclusion, neglect, or injustice.
Egyptians ultimately took to the streets when they had enough. Many Afghans are already turning to the insurgency because it offers an alternative to the Karzai government. U.S. policymakers should heed Egypt’s lesson—representative governance cannot be an afterthought to security.
Caroline Wadhams is Director of South Asian Security Studies at the Center for American Progress. To read more about our recommendations on U.S. strategy in the region, go to the National Security page of our website.