Linking Matiullah Khan to Kabul

On 16 December, the Obama administration released its annual review of the strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama review highlights the progress made in depleting al-Qaeda’s leadership and breaking the Taliban’s momentum, and underscores the challenges of combating corruption, eliminating Pakistani sanctuaries and transferring responsibility to Afghan security forces.

In response, the Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith noted that it was an “important opportunity to assess whether the implementation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and the transition to Afghan responsibility for security is on track.” His statement, however, concentrated on Australia’s efforts, as part of the international community, to improve governance and address corruption.

This statement reiterates our desire to support legitimate and transparent government at the national level, yet it remains disjointed from our undertakings in Uruzgan. Of these undertakings, our continued support of local warlord Matiullah Khan remains a perennial concern. While our cooperation with Khan has been defended by our military leadership as a relationship of necessity, he is a controversial figure, one with whom even the Dutch refused to work. This status quo is problematic. There remains no clear strategy that articulates the nexus between local governance structures and national ones. Several months ago, Tom Hyland (amongst others) raised concerns about our engagement of Khan in terms of its undermining of the capacity of the Afghan government. Despite calls for greater transparency in our dealings in Afghanistan and more open debate, we are still without a roadmap that links Khan to Kabul.

Compounding the problem is our Government’s lack of confidence in working with provincial level leaders; a Wikileaked cable shows Prime Minister’s Gillard’s call for Afghan President Karzai to remove the governor of Uruzgan owing to corrupt and obstructionist behaviour. While this may seem to affirm our stance on anti-corruption, it is a reminder that we are dealing with a plethora of uncertain and difficult actors. The lack of reliable partners must surely serve to undermine efforts at consistent and durable reform.

With all this talk of the 2014 handover date, there remain some hard questions to be considered. Without a clear linking strategy, how do we reconcile our desire to bolster the Government of Afghanistan with our continued support of local warlords? How do we reconcile our lack of confidence in Afghan partners with our desire to handover to Afghan civilian and military officials once we leave? Without consideration to these questions, once we withdraw, there will be few guarantees that our actions will not create more problems than the security benefits we set out to achieve.

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About Natalie Sambhi

Natalie Sambhi is co-editor of Security Scholar. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre, a think tank based at the University of Western Australia. She was formerly an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Managing Editor of The Strategist. She is a Hedley Bull Scholar and graduate of the Australian National University.