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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Time to Stop Hedging Bets Over Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Ten miles outside this dust-blown city, the historical capital of Afghanistan, gunmen belonging to the local warlord guard the airport, which U.S. forces use as a base. The hefty fee the guards get from the United States has allowed them to build a marble-faced barracks nearby.

Kandaharis, baffled, keep asking me, "Why are the Americans helping President Hamid Karzai and helping his enemies, the warlords, too?" To them the problem with this practice is clear: U.S. policy is in danger of failing because America won't stop hedging its bets. At stake is not just the future of Afghanistan, but a whole region's hopes of escaping a 30-year nightmare. And ultimately, what happens in Afghanistan will shape relations between the Muslim world and the West.

The hedging of bets has taken many forms since the fall of the Taliban a year and a half ago: a dizzying succession of officers at the U.S. Embassy for the first six months; the lack of any reconstruction projects outside Kabul until after the grand council chose Karzai as transitional president; and later, international donors' obsession with quick-impact projects, known as quips, that didn't cost much and wouldn't be much of a loss if they failed.

Afghans, meanwhile, have been waiting for major reconstruction that would make a real difference. The Kabul-Kandahar road, on which work has only just begun, has become a cause c?l?bre. What was once a six-hour trip to the capital to deliver, say, Kandahar grapes, and the exquisitely fragrant raisins they dry into, is now a three-day trek -- and 72 hours on the road means grape mash. A good road to Kabul would make all the difference to Kandahar's merchants, and jumpstart a whole region's economy.

And what about other projects that would substantially improve Afghan lives? There's the road to Urozgan, an isolated town that is easy prey to Islamic extremists and is at minimum a nine-hour drive from Kandahar along a ribbon of iron-hard dirt. The Helmand Province irrigation system, built by U.S. engineers in the late 1950s, now lies crippled after years of neglect and Soviet sabotage. Donors, however, are loath to commit their money to big projects like these.

But the most dangerous form of bet-hedging has been U.S. support for local strongmen. Eager for Afghan forces to help fight the Taliban, the United States brought these warlords back from exile after Sept. 11, 2001. What began as a relationship of convenience was cemented in a brotherhood of arms, as U.S. troops fraternized with the exotic fighters they had bivouacked with. Because they had reaped weapons and cash in the bargain, the warlords were able to impose themselves as provincial governors, despite being reviled by the Afghan people, as every conversation I've had and study I've done demonstrates.

Their positions have been reinforced by international donors who, for convenience's sake, distribute much of their reconstruction assistance through the warlords. The donors' reasoning sounds plausible: "So-and-so is the governor," numerous U.S. officials have told me. "The day President Karzai removes him, we will support that decision. But until then, we have to work with him." It's a bit disingenuous, since this explanation ignores the way these men became governors.

It also begs the truth. In late May, Karzai summoned to Kabul the 12 governors who control Afghanistan's strategic borders. For the previous fortnight, Afghan and international officials say, he had been preparing to dismiss the most egregious offenders: four or five governors who are running their provinces like personal fiefs, who withhold vast customs revenue from the central government, who truck with meddlesome foreign governments, who oppress their people, who turn a blind eye to extremist activities while trumpeting their anti-Taliban bona fides. U.S. officials, saying they were taken aback by the scope of the Afghan government's plan, discouraged him. The plan was scrapped, and the Afghan government made do with an agreement in which the recalcitrant governors promised to hand over customs revenue owed to the central government.

Washington, in other words, wouldn't stop hedging its bets. The United States backs Karzai, but it can't relinquish its alliances with the enemies of all he stands for.

But Karzai bears part of the blame. He, too, has been hedging his bets. His endlessly polite interactions with his predator governors are confusing his constituents. Although Washington thought firing half a dozen governors was too much, it would have supported the dismissal of one or two, and Karzai wasted a golden opportunity by refusing to do that.

The problem is, no matter what they say, these warlords aren't going to behave. They are not reformable, because it is not in their interest to reform. The warlords' livelihood depends on extremism and lawlessness. That's how they draw their pay; that's what allows them to rule by the gun in an unofficial martial law, looting villages under the pretext of mopping-up operations, extracting taxes and bribes, crushing opponents.

The U.S. alliance with warlords also discourages ordinary Afghans from helping rebuild their country. And without the people, the process is doomed. Afghans I have met and worked with share a fierce desire to live in a normal country. They have demonstrated that desire. In the face of tremendous adversity, they have managed to open schools, clean irrigation ditches, plant trees and dig sewers. But seeing warlords regain power is making people waver. I have found in my work that more and more Afghans are withdrawing to the sidelines, subtracting their life force from the battle to reconstruct Afghanistan.

They are also increasingly wary about the elections next year. At a recent meeting here with representatives from the commission that's drafting a new constitution, a nursing student asked, "How can we freely elect our representatives with warlords controlling the countryside?"

Despite U.S. officials' misgivings, it would not be so difficult to remove the warlord-governors. Their lack of popular support means no one would fly to their defense were they dismissed. The mere display of U.S. backing for a plan to oust them would be enough to cow their paid liegemen. In the interest of offering Afghanistan a chance to have a future, and opening the door to a new kind of relationship with the Muslim world, the United States should back any future decision to remove the warlord-governors.

For despite the rocky start to reconstructing postwar Afghanistan, an ember of hope for the country's future is still burning. Several high-caliber diplomats are now at the U.S. Embassy. U.S. military commanders, who by training focus on battle plans, have begun to realize that their activities can have unintended political consequences if they do not have intimate knowledge of the people they are dealing with. These officers have grown more alert to the ways in which local warlords may be using them. In Kandahar, the base commander has begun meeting with tribal elders to forge links with the population.

When U.S. President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, he promised that Afghanistan would not be forgotten. If that promise is to mean anything, America's accumulated experience in Afghanistan must be acted upon, unequivocally. It's time to stop hedging bets.

Sarah Chayes, a former National Public Radio reporter, is field director of Afghans for Civil Society, an organization that sponsors democracy initiatives. She contributed this comment to The New York Times.