Unruly Clients: The Trouble with Allies

Afghanistan and Pakistan form the central front in the conflict with al-Qaeda, but both are flawed and sullen allies who maintain the U.S. partnership only out of dire necessity. When Hamid Karzai was installed as Afghanistan’s president after the initial collapse of the Taliban regime, he seemed the best option available to balance U.S. objectives and Afghan reality. He was a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, which is Afghanistan’s most numerous, and fluent in English, with degrees in political science from Indian universities. He did not have a large personal power base so he relied on U.S. sponsorship. But he knew that Afghan history showed that reliance on an outsider could be deadly, as former president and Soviet client Mohammad Najibullah learned the hard way. And unlike the Americans, Karzai understood that Afghanistan could only stomach reform in small bites. He has gone along with the American program as much as necessary to keep Washington interested and sustain the flow of assistance, but not a step further.

The United States has pushed its new ally toward what it believed was the only form of government that would be stable over the long term: a relatively secular one based on the rule of law, which retains legitimacy because most of the population considers it best able to provide vital goods and services like security, infrastructure, education, health care, and economic opportunity. This view, codified in the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine, assumes that all nations function more or less like Western ones. A government acquires legitimacy and stability when most of the population trusts it to exercise authority in their interests and in accordance with law. Hence counterinsurgency succeeds when America’s allies become more like America.

Unfortunately, this hardly reflects the reality of those parts of the world susceptible to violent extremism. The Afghan political system runs on patronage and power; a psychologically and culturally shaped notion of justice and personal affinity (based on ethnicity, sect, race, family, clan, tribe) intermingle with personal benefit derived from patronage. This social and psychological complexity is very different from the materialistic notion of legitimacy that undergirds the U.S. approach to counterinsurgency, which assumes that “the people” support whichever side in a conflict provides the most goods and services. Nor is this the only problem in American counterinsurgency strategy. According to its central tenets, success comes when a national government controls all of its territory and thus can prevent terrorists and other extremists from developing sanctuaries. Yet governments with full control of their national territory do not exist in much of the world. Many nations have inaccessible hinterlands, and central governments regard parts of sprawling cities like Karachi, São Paulo, Nairobi, and Lagos as no-go zones.

The corruption of the Karzai government—so profound that General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, warned that it could derail American plans for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign—may have enhanced the president’s personal power, but it has disillusioned much of the Afghan public, which has seen only limited improvement in its security or standard of living despite immense amounts of aid flowing into the country. According to U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, “The appearance of luxury mansions around Kabul, with many expensive cars parked outside, surrounded by private armed guards, is a very worrisome sign that some Afghans are cheating their people while claiming to be in their service.” Transparency International ranks Afghanistan the second most corrupt nation in the world, behind only Somalia. In response to such criticisms, Karzai makes vague promises to “review the laws.” In fact, his unwillingness to take corruption seriously is not simply a character flaw, but ingrained in the Afghan system. As in nearly all parts of the world that give rise to violent extremism and protracted insurgency, patronage is power. Ending corruption would be political suicide for Karzai or anyone who replaces him.

But corruption is not enough to keep a government going. The extremely lucrative narcotics industry provides an even larger stream of money for the elite who surround and maintain Karzai. The starkest case involves Marshal Fahim, the former commander of the Northern Alliance and present Afghan defense minister, and one of Karzai’s running mates in the 2009 election. Despite reported involvement in the drug industry, Fahim remains influential among Afghanistan’s northern Tajiks—a community among whom Karzai, as a southern Pashtun, has limited pull. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s brother, has also been linked to the drug trade. Afghans, who know exactly what is going on, call the mansions sprouting up around Kabul “poppy palaces.” When the U.S. military provided the Afghan government with a hit list of about fifty suspected drug kingpins, it was rebuffed by Afghan officials who warned that arresting those on the list could lead to a backlash against foreign troops. In the face of such intractable realities, Americans continue to hope for a miracle, that eventually Karzai (or someone like him) will transcend his personal interests and those of his patrons to build an effective, liberal system and eradicate the conditions that give rise to violent extremism. It is a strategy based on fantasy.


Because it now hosts the core leadership of al-Qaeda and possesses nuclear weapons, Pakistan has an even greater say in U.S. strategy than Afghanistan. Yet it is even more dysfunctional, a country that has been deeply involved in transnational terrorism. But Islamabad makes little effort to quash violent extremists who do not attack it directly. With economic expansion lagging behind population growth, a failed educational system, rising religious parties, a tumultuous and corrupt political system, and a military with a track record of political intervention fixated on India rather than on domestic extremism, the Pakistani government plays a game of chicken with revolution. It exercises little or no control over large swaths of the country, both the inaccessible hinterlands and parts of its own cities. The security forces have longstanding ties to the Afghan Taliban, which maintains its headquarters and support infrastructure in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s intelligence services continue to help Mullah Muhammad Omar, leader of the Taliban and al-Qaeda ally, avoid capture. When U.S. officials suggested that the Pakistani military move into North Waziristan, where most of the extremists have taken shelter, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, angrily stated that his country “will not be prodded by outsiders” into conducting specific military operations.

The U.S. response has been to expand the capacity of the Pakistani government and military through assistance, encourage them to end the deliberate or tacit sanctuary for terrorists, and prod them toward deep economic and political reform (which, theoretically, could undercut the anger and frustration that give rise to violent extremism—something that decades of aid have failed to do). Such urgings, despite their being coupled with an open pipeline of cash, have only bought hysterical anti-Americanism, fueled by bizarre conspiracy theories that remain pervasive even among the educated Pakistani elite. The plan for regional security that President Obama announced in December 2009 was met with skepticism and outright opposition. Pakistanis continue to see Americans as arrogant, domineering, and insensitive to their predicament. The clear message is “send more money—much more—but do not tell us what to do with it.” Opinion polling shows that only 16 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the United States. Pakistani politicians know that defying the United States (while simultaneously convincing Washington that they maintain too much importance to cut loose) increases their popularity.

According to Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, the problem is the “one-sidedness” of American policy in favor of India (something that most Indians would find surprising given Washington’s long tilt toward Islamabad). U.S. policymakers also cling to the notion that American and Pakistani interests are generally the same, and that Pakistan’s anti-Americanism can be cured with more aid and better “strategic communications”—or good old-fashioned American politicking that circumvents the corrupt elites, as when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a series of town hall meetings in Pakistan (which mostly illustrated the depth of distrust and hostility).

So where does all this leave U.S. strategy? Americans could soldier on, hoping for miracles and redefining expectations at each inevitable failure. Washington’s flawed allies will continue superficial reform, at least until they conclude that the political and personal costs of doing so outweigh the benefits. But husbanding of power rather than the decisive defeat of the extremists or the building of a stable, liberal system will always remain their goal. They will never fully share America’s view of the threat or the solution to it. Some, like Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq, may eventually reach a point where they can wield power without much American assistance. Recognizing that association with the United States erodes their legitimacy, leaders in this position will end or downgrade the U.S. alliance, pressuring violent extremists who pose a direct threat to them while ignoring or even cooperating with those who target only foreigners. Others like Karzai—and whoever rules Pakistan—will continue to minimize conflict with violent extremists who do not target them directly and reject reform that might undermine them or the elites who support them.


Current American national security strategy rests on the plainly false notion that our allies share our desire to eradicate violent extremism by building stable, liberal systems, and that if one leader does not pursue this course, we will simply find another one who will. Staying a course based on such a strategy offers a recipe for disaster. Instead, the United States ought to transcend the myths that underlie its current strategy and abandon unrealistic alliances with damaged partners. This should begin with a redefinition of the overarching goals of American strategy. Every great power throughout history—except the United States, that is—understood that not all enemies could or needed to be decisively defeated. Great powers pursued “victory” when it was feasible and necessary, but otherwise accommodated themselves to the unpleasant fact that many threats simply must be managed. For a variety of reasons, the United States has believed itself to be exempt from this law of strategic feasibility and concluded that it can attain decisive victory over all enemies near and far. While this was understandable in the emotional years immediately after the September 11 attacks, now is the time for cold reassessment. The United States should concede that if decisive victory over violent extremism requires re-engineering whole cultures, then it is unattainable. Americans ought to stop hoping for miracles and find realistic and affordable methods of protecting their interests. Continued improvement in homeland security is part of this. There may even come a time when the United States must consider limiting access to the American homeland for individuals from regions and nations that give rise to violent extremism.

In the short term, however, movement toward a more realistic national security strategy means separating counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. During the Cold War, the United States undertook counterinsurgency to blunt the expansion of Soviet influence; in the post–September 11 world, it undertakes counterinsurgency to prevent the establishment of sanctuary or bases for al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist movements. But while counterinsurgency may be an effective method of counterterrorism, it requires years of effort and expense, and the outcome is too often an unsatisfactory shadow of the original intent. To transcend this dilemma, the United States must change its goal from preventing al-Qaeda from having sanctuary, to preventing it from having a power projection capability that it can use to attack the United States or American targets. There are ways to do that other than pretending that the United States can create effective and stable proxy governments that share America’s objectives and priorities, and which will fight America’s enemies. After all, al-Qaeda has a sanctuary of sorts in Pakistan’s tribal regions today, but this does not give it the ability to project power. That should be a model for anywhere else that al-Qaeda develops roots, whether it be in Afghanistan, Somalia, or other parts of the Islamic world.

Of course, the United States will still need partners, even allies, under the terms of such a strategy. But these may not reflect the American preference for national governments operating under the rule of law or governments that control all of their state’s territories. Individuals at the local level constitute the real source of authority and security. American military and political officials in Iraq and, increasingly, Afghanistan recognize this and have sometimes worked around the national government to develop relationships with local entities. That was what drove al-Qaeda out of Iraq’s Anbar Province and may yet expel the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies from southern Afghanistan. But this effective technique runs counter to existing U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and official strategy. It is important to fix this dissonance by bringing doctrine and official strategy into line with reality.

In an even larger sense, Americans should not fool themselves into believing that they and their partners want the same thing and have the same priorities. Relationships must be rigorously conditional. The partners will remain deeply flawed—undemocratic, corrupt, concerned above all with retaining power, and willing to ignore or reject the United States if the alliance threatens their hold on power or access to resources. If the interests and priorities of a foreign government at the front line of violent extremism do overlap with those of the United States, a limited partnership might make sense. But Americans must stop believing they can make allies resemble themselves over time. When objectives and priorities in one partnership diverge, the United States must be willing to walk away and seek a new one.

Americans would greatly prefer steadfast, lasting alliances based on a deep sense of shared values and priorities. Alas, these tend to be rare and will remain so. A new, realistic, and feasible strategy ought to reflect the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be.

Steven Metz is a research professor with the Strategic Studies Institute at the the U.S. Army War College and also chairs the Regional Strategy and Planning Department there. He is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.

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