June 4, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan: A Modest Proposal for Addressing a Major Risk Factor

As of early June 2012, members of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are designing plans for a withdrawal from Afghanistan in a manner that will leave behind some semblance of stability and security for that country. This strategic challenge comes at a time when those member-states are also struggling to address deepening economic challenges within their own weakening economies, thus diminishing already limited political and financial will for expensive commitments in the post-withdrawal period.

A major focus area for the departing militaries is how best to emplace enduring counterterrorism tactics with dwindling resources. Conventional counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies historically employed by large powers are not only expensive, but the track record in contemporary times also suggests that they have not been consistently effective. Given the current scenario, NATO and ISAF might begin to explore more unconventional approaches that have the potential to address chronic social issues that have inherent counterterrorism concerns.


The Struggle for National Allegiance

In over a decade of effort, it has proven exceedingly difficult to foster allegiance among the Afghan population towards the central government. The country has no long-standing tradition of strong central rule over its remote provinces, and efforts to create a formal seat of power in Kabul have often been undermined by corruption and ineffective governance. While the objective of building a sense of national allegiance remains elusive, this aim continues to be vital in terms of keeping factionalism and violent extremism under control.

At the same time, by shifting a portion of the focus of counterterrorism programs toward other stabilizing elements within the country —  such as shoring up social constructs that contribute to greater community development — the Afghan government and ISAF might be able to effectively increase security in a manner consistent with decreased resources. One area that falls within this rubric and would directly impact the concept of commitment is, quite simply, marriage.

Marriage is often cited in many parts of the world as a key stabilizing component for a society. While it certainly will not stop determined individuals from joining an insurgency or engaging in violent acts, it can reduce the numbers. This is especially relevant given that in Afghanistan  — just as in Algeria and Vietnam — insurgent groups like the Taliban primarily draw recruits and supporters from the pool of young, single men with few prospects for social integration or economic viability. In a geostrategic environment where $US billions have been spent in a decade-long fight against an insurgency, it remains far easier and financially more feasible for the average young Afghan male to join the insurgency than to get married and remain in his community.


The Cost of Weddings Creates Social Vulnerabilities

The reason is in large part due to the exorbitant costs of weddings that force frustrated young Afghan men to either delay marriage or seek alternate funding, often incurring crushing debts owed to friends and family or pursuing extra-legal means such a crime or insurgency. This is not to suggest that increasing marriage will immediately and fully solve Afghanistan's multitude of problems; rather, it is to suggest that government-provided assistance with the cost of weddings creates positive, ongoing interactions between the government and its young citizens — and their extended families and tribes — while also greatly diminishing a source of significant frustration on the part of many young men (frustrations, it should be noted, that have been consistently exploited by insurgent and terrorist recruiting narratives).

While the problem of runaway wedding costs is well known throughout the country — and by government leadership — there has yet to be a concerted effort to connect this social issue with the overall counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies. Indeed, in 2011, the Afghan government proposed to limit the costs of weddings, stating that such extravagance was unIslamic and created unnecessary tension between those who could afford such showy weddings and those who could not. Weddings costing between US$ 2,000 to $20,000 are now the norm in a country with a per capita annual income of just US$ 900. Clearly, this creates unneeded pressure in an already explosive and tenuous environment. Further increasing the stress on young Afghan families is the annual inflation rate of 11% (a partial legacy of enormous NATO/ISAF spending), which makes purchases of even basic necessities expensive. While nothing came of the 2011 Afghan initiative in terms of limiting costs, other initiatives provide an insight into how such a program might work.

Last year, a "mass-wedding commission" in Parwan Province, funded by a wealthy local businessman and comprised of representatives from various ministries, conducted a group wedding for 21 couples. The commission covered the entire expense of the ceremonies and also provided a monthly stipend to assist with other bills. There have been many such mass-weddings since, from Kandahar to Bamiyan, usually funded by charities or religious groups. Everyone involved says the reason they facilitate these weddings is to help young Afghan men get married, which often leads to lowered domestic violence, inter-and -intra family strife, and individual shame. There is, however, a lingering reluctance on the part of many families to take part in a mass wedding, a reality that challenges the scalability of this strategy nationwide.


An Unconventional Strategy

The relative success — and the positive ramifications from a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency perspective — of this narrowly focused effort nonetheless creates an opportunity for the Afghan government and its ISAF partners to design a creative way to address this problem in a fashion that might benefit both the individual and society at large. Instead of conducting sporadic mass weddings, one option would be to establish and fund a wedding/marriage assistance office in each province that would work with religious leaders to provide sensible financial support to help defray the often unaffordable cost of weddings.

Such an effort would not be a social program conducted exclusively for humanitarian reasons; rather, it would provide Afghan males with a chance to work for something immediately tangible: a debt-free start to marriage. This cannot be another Kabul-driven initiative that will almost certainly be met with suspicion, if not defiance in the provinces. Instead, given the nature of the work — and the ethnic diversity in Afghanistan — responsibility for managing such a program must be delegated to the local level and to those who best understand the needs of their community and its people. Overall, it could offer a unique chance to show real and lasting benefits for a subset of the population that makes up the bulk of the recruiting pool for the insurgents. In the end, assisting with the cost of weddings/marriage is one of many possible low-cost/high return strategies to substantially reduce the flow of young men into the ranks of the Taliban.

Certainly, the cost of such a program would be but a small fraction of the funding invested in current strategies and tactics for this rapidly changing environment. And while efforts should continue to build a sense of national allegiance and commitment among young Afghan men, helping them become part of a social construct that promotes stability and commitment on a smaller scale might very well lead to a similar sense of belonging on a larger scale. These are the steps that will help Afghanistan in its evolution from a country to a nation.



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