Analogies can be dangerous when we assume two situations are equivalent and need to be addressed in a near identical fashion. On the other hand, contrasting the similarities and differences of two or more situations can offer us powerful insights. Looking at the drug cartel war in Mexico and the Afghanistan War, two governments are facing very different conflicts that consume their domestic agenda. Unfortunately, there are also many similarities, including extremely resilient insurgencies that have real potential when it comes to outlasting military action. It is, however, important to recognize what the leadership can do to achieve success and what it needs to succeed. To that end, the Karzai government can learn some very important lessons from the Mexican President who is overcoming deep-seated political corruption to serve the interests of his people.
President Felipe Calderon is waging a war that defies a widespread tradition of corruption at all levels of government in a country where negligent police enforcement of drug laws was the norm. His enemy is the warring community of drug cartels, which are as firmly entrenched in the Mexican civilization as they are well funded, while their brutality only grows with each defeat. This fractured insurgency’s mission is to push aside government intervention, destroy competition, and secure the drug market, so their individual businesses can continue to grow. If they succeed, Mexico will become a safe haven for those who feed the American drug trade as well as the worst sort of criminal activities, including those that will seriously undermine US security interests in the most direct and profound way.
On the other side of the globe, President Hamid Karzai oversees what remains of the long standing civil war that has plagued Afghanistan for over thirty years. His enemy is an insurgency bent on destroying the national democratic government. Fueled by the support of the global Al Qaeda movement, which seeks to unify Islamic extremists across the globe to destroy all Western influences in the Middle East, the Taliban insurgency’s goals are not so straightforward. For many, the Taliban is simply an employer while others wish to retake their Country and still others religiously pursue the destruction of the West. Consequently, Karzai has as many enemies fighting his government as he has allies fighting alongside him, for now.
Creating a stable nation-state within the Afghan territory depends on the involvement of the Afghan people, the fortitude of government officials on all levels, and the support of neighboring nations, most notably Pakistan. To this end, the Afghan people must be convinced the national government will protect their interests while undermining the influence of the Taliban is an essential component to this goal. Unfortunately, the Taliban is a well entrenched social institute, thus Taliban fighters must be recruited into the cause for a unified, democratic Afghanistan. This is something Karzai is attempting to do with his efforts to reincorporate lower level Taliban fighters back into society. Then again, Karzai has competing interests as the West cannot and will not always provide significant military support.
Corruption in the Afghanistan government means government officials lookout for their own interests first and foremost. If the US was to offer an open-ended commitment, the self-interests of the Afghan leaders would be to keep NATO forces engaged in suppressing, not necessarily breaking, the Taliban while they use Afghan resources for their benefit instead of building and securing their Nation. Fortunately, allied forces have sent Karzai, who appears to be willing to fight corruption, a clear message that this is not the case. Unfortunately, he may well have been trying to hedge his position by making a side deal with the devil. Rejecting an alliance with Karzai and demonstrating he is considered their enemy, the top Taliban leaders have forced Karzai and other government officials to refocus their attention on national interests in order to guarantee Western allies can help them secure their Nation in a timely manner.
Similarly, Calderon is in a position where stability and peace with the enemy is not possible. Meanwhile, it is important to remember the 2007 military surge in Iraq succeeded due in part to the Sons of Iraq Awakening where Iraqis showed support for their Nation as Prime Minister Maliki began to focus his attention on national interests versus enjoying the fruits of his political life. Where Calderon lacks military support from neighbors and allies, the Karzai government is still plagued with a lack of fortitude required for officials to forgo their immediate personal interests and to rally the support of the populous. With General David Petraeus replacing General Stanley McChrystal as top NATO commander, there will be an added element of political will, which was obviously McChrystal’s shortcoming, that will have to push Karzai toward awakening his people.
Although quite successful in his command during the Iraq campaign, Petreaus will have to work harder, and more quickly, than he did in Iraq to invigorate the Afghan people. This starts with forcing the Karzai government to root out corruption while finding a new way to ensure “the government in a box” strategy works to bring the national government to local levels. If the Afghan people cannot be rallied to support their Nation, the anti-insurgent element of the regional war will not be won and the US must eventually shift its attention toward disrupting the operational capacity of terrorists groups and reinforcing more willing nations like Pakistan. On the flip side, greater support of allies like Calderon would better serve our national security interests and will likely achieve greater success at a lower cost.